As you may already know, cognates are words from different languages that look very similar. Thanks to the Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century, some 10,000 French words entered Middle English vocabulary, and language experts estimate that approximately three-fourths of those words are still in use in Modern English.
Because of the heavy French influence on the English language, it’s no surprise that there are a lot of French-English cognates. However, there are also a lot of “false friends” to look out for: words that look alike but have very different meanings. Here’s a list of 10 false friends that might trip you up.
No, this isn’t the plural of brassiere. It’s the French word for “arm.” The French word for bra actually looks nothing like the English word. It’s soutien-gorge.
Célibataire ≠ celibate. While they both can mean “unmarried,” the English word almost always suggests that a celibate person abstains from any sexual relations. The French word célibataire just means “a single person,” with no implied reference to his or her sex life (or lack thereof).
It’s spelled exactly like the thing you sit on, but in French this word actually means “flesh.” Flesh probably doesn’t come up in conversation as often as a seat, so you might get some strange looks if you confuse these two. Instead, use the French word chaise when you mean “chair.”
From the looks of it, you’d think that this word means “comedian.” But alas, learning a language is not that straightforward. Although the English words comedian and comedienne refer to men and women who are comic actors, the French word comédien(ne) directly translates to “actor/actress.”
In English, a commode is often used as a humorous word for a toilet, but in French, a commode is in the bedroom, not the bathroom. It means “dresser” or “chest of drawers.”
We know this as a feminine-hygiene product, or in more recent vernacular, an offensive insult for an unpleasant person (usually directed at a man, go figure). But in French, it’s a very neutral word that simply means “shower.”
When we were borrowing all of those French words, clearly someone must have gotten confused. The French use the word entrée to refer to an “appetizer,” while we use entrée in English to denote a “main course.” Tricky, tricky.
How “irregular!”: a grape is a prune is a plum is a raisin. No kidding!
For English speakers, this word conjures up the idea of fiber that your mom forces you to eat, but actually, prune in French refers to the fruit we know as a plum in English. A dried plum—which we know as a prune—is a pruneau in French. These fruity cognates are so confounding, no wonder people suffer from irregularity!
Again with the dried fruit! Much like the prune situation, the French word raisin is simply a “grape” to those of us who speak English. To refer to the little pop-in-your-mouth snack we call a “raisin,” use the French term raisin sec, or “dried grape.”
In English, we might wear a robe over our pajamas or when we are just getting out of the shower, but in French, you can wear a robe to fancy party. It’s a noun that means “dress.”
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