Saturday, October 16, 2010

I Miss You, My Faux Amis

In French une injure is 'an insult', but English 'injury' is une blessure in French.

And how come tu me manques, literally 'you me miss', means 'I miss you'?

If you are not familiar with the concept, 'faux amis' – false friends, are words in a pair of languages that look or sound the same or very close, but mean different things. In the case of French and English, so closely connected through history and culture, the number of faux amis is really astounding.

Among linguists, students and users of French and English there is already a body of jokes and quite a few collections of faux amis online.

But Ellie Malet Spradbery put together a delightful little book False Friends – Faux Amis based on her own experience of traveling in France. I recommend it to anyone who has a lust for all things French, and it should be a must have book for Brits who settle in the old Angevin Empire - from Normandy to Poitou to Dordogne to Provence.

The book is not an academic study of how words travelled from French to English and from English to French acquiring different meanings, nor is it a dictionary. It is rather a fun collection of language curiosities picked on the move. And it reads as such, which makes it really enjoyable.

With the French bemoaning the English invasion of their language and the English sniggering at Franglais, it is refreshing to see how much it is the other way round – how deep is French penetration into English.

The publishers' note sent to me suggests that Faux Amis is an ongoing project and the book is to be expanded and improved. Spradbery runs a blog at, so I hope anyone can go there to offer their own finds.

A few nitpickings.

I wish there was an alphabetical index of all the words, English and French included in the book. It would be better if it had more examples of how the words are actually used - or misused by both the French and the English. And of course while spelling may be the same, pronounciation is very different. Coin in French is not pronounced as coin in English, but koo-ehn. Euro in French sounds more like Ero from Eros. There is very little, if any, help on how to say words the French way which is a pity.

One of my own favourite faux amis are cheminee (fireplace) and chambre (bedroom). You can see French estate agents describing property as 'three-chamber with chimney' (three-bedroom house with an open fire). This is not in the book.

Another one, demand (request, in the book) slips into English-in-France so quickly, many stop realising they are different. And every time I see the sign deviation on the road I go mad trying to remember the actual word used for the same purpose in England – diversion.

As for tu me manques you just have to get used to the wider use of passive constructions in French. Put 'I miss you' as 'you are missed by me' and all becomes clear.

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