For those learning French, “false friends” are word pairs that seem the same when spelt or said out loud in French and English, but have different meanings. These faux amis can cause confusion if you read or hear them in context, because you naturally assume that they translate into the English word that they resemble. You may also see “false friends” called “false cognates” or “deceptive cognates”.
French and English share plenty of true cognates (words that appear the same and have the same meanings), so you’d be forgiven for getting caught out by a “false friend”. However, if you do accidentally use one in conversation – most likely through putting an English word in a French accent and thinking the meaning is the same – the results can be embarrassing!
When learning French, you’re also likely to come across “semi-false cognates”: cognates that can mean the English word that they resemble, but have at least one other meaning that differs.
Here’s our list of 15 faux amis that you are likely to encounter. It’s important to remember that some of these words have lots of minor meanings in both French and English, and it would be futile for me to try and list them all. Instead, I’ve included the meanings that are most often used so that this list is as useful possible.
There’s a countless number of French/English false friends, and this article is just a handful of them. If you’re interested in trying to learn a lot more, I’d personally recommend French Faux Amis, The Combined Book by Saul H. Rosenthal, whose books have been a great resources for me over the years.
On y va !
supplier & to supply
Supplier translates as to beg, to implore, to beseech. Its meaning has nothing to do with that of “to supply”.
Je te supplie de rentrer chez toi. I’m begging you to go home.
Je t’en supplie ! / Je vous en supplie ! I’m begging you.
For the English meaning of to supply, you can use fournir.
l’avertissement & advertisement
Un avertissement is a warning, not an advertisement. It comes from the verb avertir, which means “to warn”.
Les adolescents ont reçu un avertissement de la police. The teenagers received a warning from the police.
Il faut que l’on fasse attention aux avertissements. You have to pay attention to the warnings.
To say an advertisement in French, you can use une publicité, often shortened to une pub.
la chair & chair
La chair translates as flesh. A chair in French is la chaise.
Les chirurgiens ont taillé dans la chair pendant l’opération. The surgeons cut into the flesh during the operation.
La chair d’une prune est jaunâtre ou rougeâtre. The flesh of a plum is yellowish or reddish.
Il est mon frère, ma chair et mon sang. He is my brother, my own flesh and blood.
La chair can also mean meat, often in the context of distinguishing between red and white meat:
La chair blanche est moins riche en matière grasse que la chair rouge. White meat is lower in fat than red meat.
Chair can also be used as an adjective meaning skin-coloured.
Les collants chairs. Skin-coloured tights.
le sort & sort
In French, le sort refers to fate or destiny. It has nothing to do with a type, or kind.
Son sort reste incertain. His fate remains uncertain.
Le sort en a décidé autrement. Fate decided otherwise.
Un coup de sort. A stroke of bad luck.
Le sort can also mean a spell or curse.
Elle croit qu’une sorcière l’a jetée un sort. She believes that a witch put a spell on her.
If you wanted to use the English meaning of sort, use un type or une sorte.
la flemme & phlegm
If you hear someone say << J’ai la flemme >>, they’re not talking about hacking a loogie. Avoir la flemme de… is a common idiom which means “ to not be bothered to do…”, or “to be too lazy to do”.
Les étudiants ont la flemme de faire leurs devoirs. The students are too lazy to do their homework.
Il faut que je fasse la vaisselle, mais j’ai la flemme. I need to do the dishes, but I can’t be bothered.
La flemme on its own does translate as laziness, but you’re far more likely to see it in the idiom, and see “laziness” (in the sense of being idle or apathetic) written as la paresse or la fainéantise.
If you do want to talk about phlegm you can say le mucus, les mucosités or if it’s just a nasal affair, then la morve (snot).
le coin & coin
The French noun le coin has nothing to do with coins or money, and instead translates as “corner”.
La boulangerie est au coin de la rue. The bakery is on the street corner.
Il est assis dans le coin. He is sitting in the corner.
Je me suis cogné au coin du bureau. I knocked myself on the corner of the desk.
Le coin can also be used to refer to a local area, often the place where one lives.
Elle n’est pas du coin. She’s not from around here.
There’s also a tonne of expressions using coin, such as aller au petit coin, which means to go to the loo, and un sourire au coin, which means a crooked smile.
If you want to say coin in French, it’s une pièce de monnaie, or simply une pièce.
le raisin & raisin
Un raisin is a grape, not a raisin. To say “a raisin”, it’s un raisin sec, which literally translates as “a dried grape“.
On peut faire du vin blanc avec des raisins rouges. You can make white wine with red grapes.
l’amateur & amateur
Amateur is a semi-false cognate. Like in English, it can be used as a noun or adjective to mean non-professional.
Un comédien amateur. An amateur actor.
La troupe de théâtre est ouverte uniquement aux amateurs. The theatre group is open only to amateurs.
However, un amateur or une amatrice can also means a fan, buff, enthusiast or lover of. It is this usage that you’re more likely to see.
Elle est devenue une amatrice de fléchettes. She has become a darts enthusiast.
Ces montagnes russes sont pour des amateurs de sensations fortes. These rollercoasters are for adrenalin junkies.
l’éclair & eclair
Un éclair is another semi-false cognate. It can translate into an eclair, the choux pasty cake filled with cream.
Un éclair au chocolat. A chocolate eclair.
However, it can also mean lightning or a flash of lightning.
Il a peur du tonnerre et des éclairs. He is scared of thunder and lightning.
You may also see lightning translated as la foudre. Although the two are often used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference between l’éclair and la foudre that’s worth being aware of.
L’éclair refers only to the visual part of lightning, in other words the flash in the sky. However, la foudre refers to phenomenon of lightning itself – in other words, the electrical charge that occurs during a storm, which includes both the lightning and the thunder.
La tour horloge a été frappée par la foudre. The clock tower was struck by lightning. (Here, la foudre is used because light cannot strike a tower).
le chandelier & chandelier
In English, a chandelier is a decorative hanging light that has several branches for holding bulbs or candles.
However, in French, un chandelier is a candle holder, often one with several branches (known as a candelabrum in English).
La Menorah est un chandelier à sept branches. The Menorah is a candelabra with seven branches.
To say a chandelier in French, use un lustre.
Il y a un lustre du XIXe dans le salon. There is a 19th century chandelier in the drawing room.
l’occasion & occasion
L’occasion is a semi-false cognate that often confuses both French and English speakers. It can translate as occasion, like in English. For example:
Cette robe est pour les occasions spéciales. This dress is for special occasions.
Je vois mes vieils amis à l’occasion. I see my old friends on occasion.
However, it can also translate as opportunity, or chance.
J’ai eu l’occasion de faire du parachutisme. I had the opportunity to go skydiving.
The context that you’re most likely to encounter occasion in though is that of something which is sold second-hand, usually with the implication that it is a good deal.
J’ai acheté un vélo d’occasion. I brought a second-hand bicycle.
Mon manteau est une occasion. My coat is second-hand.
In informal language, d’occasion may also be shortened to d’occase.
Une occasion can also mean a bargain (that is not necessarily second-hand.)
Cette chemise est à moitié prix – elle est une occasion ! This shirt is half price – it’s a bargain!
fatal & fatal
The French adjective fatal can have the same meaning as in English. That is, to cause death, failure or disastrous consequence.
Un accident fatal. A fatal accident
Une erreur fatale. A fatal mistake.
However, fatal can also mean inevitable.
Une guerre civile n’est pas fatale. A civil war is not inevitable.
le noise & a noise
In Old French, the noun le noise had the same meaning as the English word noise.
Over time, its meaning changed to a quarrel or dispute. However, this usage is now rather dated, and the French tend to say la dispute or la brouille instead to refer to a dispute.
You’re still likely though to come across noise in the phrase chercher des noises, often shortened to chercher noise. This expression is the French equivalent of the English phrases “to pick quarrel with” or “to pick a fight with”. Like in English, it generally has the implication that the reason for the dispute is frivolous or unimportant.
Cet étudiant cherche toujours des noises aux profs. This student is always picking quarrels with the teachers.
If you do want to say noise in French, the word is la bruit.
la circulation & circulation
La circulation is a semi-false cognate. It can mean circulation, or flow, as in English.
Il a une mauvaise circulation. He has poor circulation.
La circulation de faux billets. The circulation of counterfeit banknotes.
However, la circulation can also translate as traffic.
Un accroissement de la circulation aérienne. An increase in air traffic.
Il y a trop de circulation. There is too much traffic.
Des feux de circulation. Traffic lights.