26 Potentially Embarrassing French False Friends You Need to Know

You’re in a supermarket and you wonder if the delicious cakes you’re looking at contain preservatives.

So you muster your courage, smile and ask the seller “excusez-moi, monsieur, est-ce que ces gâteaux contiennent des préservatifs ?”.

He bursts out laughing and you realise “préservatif” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

That’s an easy mistake, lots of words look the same in French and in English.

And while this is a great advantage for you as an English speaker, this is also dangerous, because there are words like “préservatifs” who hide their true meaning behind their apparent similarity.

Welcome to the wonderful world of faux amis (false friends)

Préservatif

Asking if some food contains “préservatifs” is a common and embarrassing mistake English speakers make.

Because when you ask for food without preservatives, you are actually asking for food without condoms.

The French word for “preservative” is “conservateur”.

Bras

If you hear a French person mention the word “bras”, don’t think you just met a pervert, because in French “bras” means “arm” not “bra”.

Blessé

The French verb “blessé” looks a lot like “blessed”, but its meaning is radically different.

“Blessé” means “wounded”.

Pain

“Pain” looks like an English word you know, but it actually means “bread”. The French word for “pain” is “douleur”.

Introduire

If you want to introduce a person to another, make sure you don’t use the verb “introduire” (to insert) and use the verb “présenter” instead.

Journée

You already know that “bonjour” literally means “good day”.

What you may not know is that there are two ways to say “day” in French: “jour” and “journée”.

Even though “journée” and “journey” have the same origin, these two words have a completely different meaning nowadays.

Point

In French “un point” is a “spot”. If you want to say “goal” say “but” or “objectif”  instead.

Habit

In English a habit is something you regularly do, but in French “un habit” is simply an item of clothing.

Librairie

French books

In French “une librairie” is a book shop and not a library. A library is “une bibliothèque”.

By the way, if you go to Paris make sure you visit the wonderful Shakespeare & Company book shop near Notre Dame.

Coin

“Un coin” means a corner and not a “coin”. If you want to talk about coins, use the word “monnaie” or “pièce” instead.

Pièce

“Pièce” can either mean “coin” or “room”, but it never means “a piece of something”.

Monnaie

Talking about “monnaie”… In French “monnaie” means “change” or “coins”.

The word for “money” is “argent”.

Car

French faux ami car

“Car” is a formal way to say “because” in French. If you want to translate the English word “car”, say “voiture” instead.

Location

If you get lost and want to ask where a building is located, don’t use the word “location”, because it means “rental”.

You can however use the word “emplacement”.

Actuellement

Most French words ending in “ellement” have their English equivalent ending in “ally”.

  • Naturellement  naturally
  • Accidentellement  accidentally
  • Exceptionnellement  exceptionally
  • etc

But “actuellement” doesn’t mean “actually”, it means “currently”.

Eventuellement

I hear this is different in Canadian French, but in France “éventuellement” means “possibly” and not “eventually”.

Pub

French false friend pub

In most cases, “Pub” is short for “publicité” (advertisement). It can also mean “pub” as in “a place where you drink”, but it’s much rarer.

Once again, context is king.

Déception

“Une déception” means a disappointment and not “a deception”. If you want to say “deception”, use the word “tromperie” instead.

Rester

“Rester” looks like the English verb “to rest”, but it actually means “to stay”. “To rest” is “se reposer”.

Attendre

In French when a person “attend”, it means she is waiting for something or someone. If you want to say “to attend”, use “assister” instead.

Douche

No “douche” isn’t a way to insult someone in French. It simply means “shower”.

Grand

While it can mean “great” like in English, “grand” mostly means “tall” in French.

Joli

In French “joli” means “pretty” and not “jolly”.

If you want to say “jolly”, use the word “joyeux” instead.

Bouton

“Bouton” does means “button”, but it also means “pimple”, so make sure the meaning is as clear as your skin when you use it.

Sale

If you see that something is “sale”, it doesn’t mean it’s on sale, but rather that it’s dirty.

If you want to talk about “sales”, say “les soldes” instead.

 Envie

“Avoir envie de” is a common French expression meaning “to want something”, but it doesn’t mean you’re jealous.

The French word for “jealous” is “jaloux”.

Are you a victim of faux-amis?

Have you ever been embarrassed after using a faux ami ? Share your story in the comment section below this article!

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters.

27 thoughts on “26 Potentially Embarrassing French False Friends You Need to Know”

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  1. A French professor told a story to our class once. A man came to the home of a French family, knocked on the door, and asked the little boy who answered the door if he would go get his mother to talk with him. The boy said, “I can’t right now. She’s upstairs taking a douche.”

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  2. I used to work in the pharmaceutical industry & a colleague of mine said that when he was auditing a company in France for the production of a liquid medication he asked when the “preservatives” were added much to the amusement of the staff.
    Also, a friend from university was studying French and was staying with a French family. After a meal she was asked if she would like some more food and unfortunately said ” Non merci, je suis plein!”

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  3. I worked in France for three years. One of my early mistakes was to ask my bosses secretary to do something for me followed by l’si vous plait. She said yes but hen a couple of hours later came and asked if I was mad at her. When I asked why she said because I said l’si vous plait instead of s’il te plait. She thought of us as familiar or friends. I was able to apologize as I was an inexperienced French speaker. This wasn’t the first or last mistake I made.

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  4. I once asked for information so that I could “planer” (plan) and the French woman was very amused to imagine me gliding.

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  5. English to french translation is good oppourtunity for those who want to advance either in english or in french. You can hear the voice in both languages. Google also provide translation of newspapers. I am getting translation of De voire newspaer of Montreal, Canada. But I love to hear the historical words of Queen of France that if these people don’t have bread then why they don’ t eat “cake”.

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  6. I’m grateful for this list of confusables.i’m a teacher of English in Cameroon and false friends are really tricky for the francophone learners.in my country we are now facing a slang language known as camfranglais which is a mixture of french english and some of our mother tongues.

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  7. I once said ‘j’etait sur la vierge’ when I wanted to say ‘I was on the verge of doing something…’ My French teacher couldn’t stop laughing. (I didn’t mind. When I realized what I’d said, I found it pretty funny too!)?

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  8. “Je suis pleine” was my first ever after-dinner howler – had been sent on exchange to stay with a french family at 15 years old – shocked silence until they worked it out. er- it was 50 years ago, maybe it doesn’t mean ‘pregnant’ any more?

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  9. I used the word la chatte and shocked people. I was told the slang definition and was so embarrassed. Now, I stick with le chat.

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  10. I have accidentally said that ‘Je suis très exite’ which means something compleeeetely different to how I meant it, hahaha.

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    • When in US (for example), French journalists may express themselves saying that “les gens sont très excités”, because they hear people saying that they are very excited. In fact, some of them may be really “excités”, meaning that they make jerky body movements, even when they all only meant that they were very enthusiastic. No doubt that some of them have these body movements as a consequence or their excitement. So it doesn’t sound so weird in French when they say it, but it’s not the meaning. These journalists would better have said “les gens sont très émus, très enthousiastes.”.
      “émus” is for a strong emotion.
      “enthousiastes” is for enthusiastic.

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  11. I have read the the english word ‘Journey’ is actually related to the french ‘Journee’, in the past to go on a trip that lasted a day was called a ‘Journey’

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    • “Je vais passer une journée à la campagne.”. This really means that I’m not currently there, therefore this expression is also saying that, in a way or another, I’ll be traveling to this place, and I’ll be back, in this case, the same day.
      It’s a time spent in the countryside, of a single day duration, and a round-trip travel included.

      Reply
  12. Sad but true story about pronunciation making me look pretty foolish.
    Attempted to say: J’ai mangé beaucoup!
    Actually said: Jai mangé…beau cul… 🙁

    Reply

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