False friends in English and French

Some words, both in English and in French, can be treacherous.  They are so similar that it is easy to think that their meaning is the same in both languages.  However, it isn’t only their pronounciation that is different. Sometimes there is a slight overlap in meaning and sometimes they can translate as something totally different. This could dramatically change the sense of your text. For example, sensible is not the same in English and in French. In English it means someone practical, matter-of-fact, intelligent, raisonnable in French; in French it refers to someone who is sensitive. The misuse of this word could give a totally different idea of someone in one language as compared to the other. Many words have the same roots, such as Latin, but, as the languages evolved, so did the meaning of these words, although many continued to be written identically. Some have slight changes in spelling, such as gentle and gentil. Gentle in English means someone with a mild and kindly nature and gentil in French means nice, kind or good. Here there is an overlap of meaning, both indicate kind but, in English, the emphasis is on mildness or softness. Other words are spelt exactly the same but mean something totally different, such as four, which is an oven in French and a number in English, or chat, which means a friendly talk in English and a cat in French. Here, the list is endless. Other words to be careful with are: grand; hazard/hasard/; mercy/merci; store; tentative; proper/propre; actually/actuellement. Then again, there are words that have two meanings and you must be sure to choose the right one for your translation. For example, in French voler means ‘to fly’ and ‘to steal’, bark in English means the noise made by dogs and the covering of a tree trunk. All these can cause a lot of confusion for language students and the only answer is to memorise the differences in meaning. Otherwise you could end up producing errors such as translating noyer as ‘drowning’ instead of ‘walnut’ to produce the phrase ‘the drowning dining table and chairs’. Although highly amusing for your English readers, if they don’t know any French they will never guess want you really want to say, which is ‘the walnut table and chairs’ (I have actually seen this in a tourist guide). This is one of the reasons for using a good translation service so you can be sure that your copy is correct if not humorous.

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