Faux Amis

FAUX AMISBEWARE THOSE FAUX AMIS (WORDS THAT LOOK ALIKE IN TWO LANGUAGES BUT HAVE DIFFERENT MEANINGS, SOMETIMES DANGEROUSLY SO) AND INACCURATE TRANSLATIONS!

You’re the Chief Information Officer of the French branch of a sprawling multinational, and you’ve been told to upgrade the entire system. Everything. The Works. There are hundreds of thousands of euros to be spent on software, hardware, related staff training and, in conjunction with the Marketing Department, a glossy communication campaign to let the universe know how ultra-wired you are. With almost puerile excitement you grab the phone, call the most renowned supplier in the world and are transferred to an eager young French sales-rep delighted at the opportunity to practice his English. You explain what you’re after. The young man says he’s thrilled to help but his own system is out today. Could you call back tomorrow, he asks, when he’ll hopefully have access to the documents he needs for his pitch. You call the next day. “The system is down this morning too,” he laments, pleading for merely several more hours of patience while the finishing touches are put on the repairs. When you’re back to him after lunch, he sounds exasperated and disheartened.  “To be honest, our system is always broken!” he declares.

And there it ends.

You never call again.  Why should you?  They won’t ever be able to take your order on a system that’s constantly kaput! You wonder how such a giant in the field would allow itself to get to that point.  The sales rep wonders why someone who had sounded so understanding about their “temporary” down-time would desert them that way. And, most damagingly, the young man’s boss, having been briefed on this mega-sales prospect, is fuming that it petered out before the first estimate was uttered.

Your child has been absent for several days from his French elementary school and his teacher asks his best friend if he knows why.  The little boy reports that Johnny is sick.  After Johnny’s fourth day out, the teacher, confident about her English, calls you and insultingly states, “I understand that your son is always sick.”

Question: What’s going on here? Answer: Your high-school French teacher neglected to tell you (or maybe didn’t know) that whereas “always” means “all the time,” toujours means both “all the time” and “still.”  Not knowing this, you were unable to receive these speakers’ words through the filter of “I-know-what-you-really-mean.”

Here are some more:

Word: eventually
English: at some later time
French: maybe (éventuellement)
Why this is dangerous: When Francophones say, in (faux ami-laden) English, “I will eventually send you that file,” you expect to receive it at some point or another. The speakers think they are saying “Maybe I will send you the file and maybe not!”  You never get it.  What you do get is angry.  And thus an “incident” is born.

Word: actually
English: as an actual fact; really
French: right now (actuellement)
Why this is dangerous: When you say to native Francophones (who are filtering your words through faux ami-laden brains), “Actually, I will send you that file,” they expect to receive it right now. They don’t, but what they do receive is a (mistakenly) bad impression of the way you keep your promises.

Word: important
English: qualitatively significant
French: qualitatively and quantitatively significant (important)
Why this is dangerous: When Anglophones speak about something that can be measured with numbers something “big,” “large,” “numerous,” “voluminous,” “heavy,” “massive,” etc. — they say “big,” “large,” “numerous,” “voluminous,” “heavy,” “massive,” etc. Francophones may use these terms as well, but they may just as readily use important.  Consider this “Who’s on First”’esque dispute: ANGLOPHONE BOSS: “We did horribly this year!  We took in only a tenth as much as we did last year! You have to try harder—our bottom line is important! – FRANCOPHONE EMPLOYEE: “Our bottom line is not at all important this year! Our bottom line it pitiful!” – ANGLOPHONE BOSS: “That’s exactly why it’s important — it’s pitiful! We have to pay more attention to it!” – FRANCOPHONE EMPLOYEE: “How, nom de Dieu, can it be important if it’s pitiful?!”

Word: good/bad
English: of high/low quality
French: of high/low quality or right/wrong (bon/mauvais)
Why this is dangerous: You’re the mayor of a town that just blew almost its entire budget on a new highway. It’s a gorgeous new highway. You are beyond proud of it. Your entire constituency has showered you with compliments about it, and you beam at each one. It is not, however, the right road to take in from the airport. A Francophone visitor that you’ve been expecting for hours finally shows up.  He explains why he’s so late: “The taxi took the new highway by mistake — it’s the bad road!” (“How rude!” you think, to say nothing of inaccurate.)

Word: first, second, third, etc.
English: [designations of chronology]
French: [designations of chronology] or [designations of relative quality] (premier, deuxième, etc.)
Why this is dangerous: When Anglophones mean “the best,” “the second-biggest,” “the third-most profitable,” etc. they say “the best,” “the second-biggest,” “the third-most profitable, etc. Francophones may use these terms as well, but they may just as readily say “first,” “second,” “third.” Consider this snippet of miscommunication: When a shopping center opened in your neighborhood 10 years ago, your little electronics shop was proud to sign the very first lease. You’ve been there ever since, making a modest a living. Last month, a global mega-chain moved in, selling some of the same wares. You finally find time to greet the manager, a Francophone who, given the international renown of his hugely profitable brands, gleefully boasts, “We are the first electronics store in this mall!”  (“Huh?” you answer.)

Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.

[So how do you say « faux amis » in English? According to Harrap’s, it is “deceptive cognates”. -Ed.]