The French language is a fickle friend. You could write your own novel containing chapters upon chapters of similarly (or exactly) spelt words to those in the English language. Therefore it’s sometimes a bit of a head-scratcher when we discover words differ in meaning completely. Damn. So don’t be too quick to assume that a friendly-looking French word holds the same meaning in English.
Quite aptly, the kinds of tricky words are called ‘faux amis’ (false friends), as that’s exactly what the sneaky blighters are. Why not impress a Frenchman the next time you order du vin à Paris, and try to slip in one of these words or phrases?
What we think it means: It’s quite understandably tempting to add ‘ment’ onto just about any English word to change it into a French adverb, with the ‘ment’ commonly translating as the English ending ‘ly’ at the end of verbs (slowly, quickly, deeply etc.) And yes, a lot of the time this works (hoorah!), so of course we assume that ‘actuellement’ translates as ‘actually’. Unfortunately it means something quite different.
What it actually means: ‘At the present time’, ‘currently’ or ‘right now’. For example, ‘I am currently eating my dinner’, is an instance where this word would be used in the right context when translated. Using it to mean ‘actually, I’ve changed my mind’ would sound a bit strange. To say ‘actually’ in French, use ‘en fait’.
What we think it means: The verb ‘to rest’.
What it actually means: This common verb means, ‘to stay’, and it rears its annoying head several times in conversational French. ‘Je suis restée à la maison’ = ‘I stayed at the house’, you’ve nailed it! But when you want to convey rest as in getting some down time, use the reflexive verb ‘se reposer’ – ‘Il se repose’ as in ‘he rests’.
What we think it means: We may stab a guess as this meaning ‘gentle’ referring to the soft nature of people or the touch and feel of something.
What it actually means: Use this word when you mean to say ‘nice’ or ’kind’, such as, ’Il est gentil’ – ‘he is kind/nice’. You will more than likely hear this word in French, often used when someone pays you a compliment, or to thank someone when they’ve don’t something to help you, so the phrase: ‘merci, c’est gentil’ (thank-you, that’s kind) will be overheard commonly. But if you do want to use it to mean ‘gentle’, you can use ‘doux’, ‘aimable’ or ‘léger’ .
What we think it means: Similarly to ‘actuellement’, we want to chuck on our French friend ‘ment’ to make the ‘ly’ in ‘eventually’. Translating this quite so literally may give your unsuspecting Frenchie a confused grimace.
What it actually means: This means ‘possibly’ or ‘even’. Use the French word eventuellement in a sentence such as this: ‘You can even borrow my jacket’ or ’I will possibly be there tonight.’ But if you wish to say ‘eventually’ in French, use ‘finalement’ or ‘tôt ou tard’ (sooner or later). The second problem with this is that ‘finalement’ is also one of the most highly misused words, one we will look at in just a minute!
What we think it means: It means ‘money’, right?
What it actually means: We may not have moved away from the category of money completely, but this word refers to ‘change’ or ‘coin’. ‘Argent’ should be used when you are talking generally about money. A useful phrase to keep in mind is, ‘gardez le monnaie’ (keep the change), an apt phrase to add to your restaurant vocabulary.
What we think it means: This one still trips me up. We have high hope for this to simply mean ‘formidable’, ‘dreadful’ or ‘fearful’. It is therefore surprising that the real meaning has rather lovely connotations.
What it actually means: ‘Great’! For example, ‘Ce film est formidable!’ meaning, ‘this film is great!’. Used so frequently, the first 100 times or so someone spoke it to me in France, I thought they were insulting me! When I finally started to use it, it was almost with caution. Try to remember it is literally a ‘great’ word in the French language.
What we think it means: We think it means college. Plain and simple.
What it actually means: This refers specifically to high-school and cannot be used to mean primary school, middle school, college or university. College/university is translated by ‘université’ and ‘école primaire’ for primary school.
What we think it means: NO, don’t even say it, it doesn’t mean library!
What it actually means: Although related, never use this word to mean ‘library’. ‘Libraire’ specifically means, ‘bookshop’, so you’ll be sent off to the wrong place if you’re not careful. ‘Bibliotheque’ means ‘library’ and this word may come flooding back to you from your school days French. I always liked ‘bibliotheque’ as I thought it sounded rather comical.
What we think it means: Remember how often ‘ment’ words trip people up, and be extra wary when using it. Nope, I’m afraid that this one doesn’t mean ‘finally’. Yes, things would be a lot easier if it did.
What it actually means: ‘Finalement’ means ‘eventually’, making this extra confusing owing to the fact that ‘eventuellement’ already exists in the language as we have seen. Also, use this in place of ‘in the end’. For example replace ‘eventually’ with ‘finalement’ in: ‘Eventually, I will get round to finishing the project’.
What we think it means: More widely known to English speakers to mean ‘chance’. You’re probably thinking of the Chanel perfume, ‘Chance’, right?
What it actually means: ‘Luck’. For example ‘la chance!’ or ‘quelle chance!’ basically translates as ‘how lucky!’ and ‘what luck!’. To actually say chance in French, use ‘une occasion’, ‘un hasard’ or ‘une possibilité’.
We may think that our school French might be sufficient to get us through a French holiday, but reality might result in a few more faux pas that we’d originally planned. After our first million uses of ‘bonjour’ and ‘oui’ we start to feel a tad useless. Hopefully these ten words will provide some new, useful additions on top of your pocket French book the next time you cross the Channel for a cheesy, baguettey adventure. Bonne chance!