My first ever visit to France was when I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, and I fell in love almost at once – not with a French girl, although I do maintain fond memories of a girl called Madeleine – but with the country and the language. So it was that, some years later, I became a French teacher, then a university lecturer and Chief Examiner for O and A Level. I eventually finished up writing thirty or so textbooks designed to help young English boys and girls to derive as much pleasure as I derived from being able to converse easily with French people. That first visit, by the way, was in 1948, and now at the age of 83, I am just as passionate about the French language as I ever was, to such an extent, indeed, that now I am a novelist rather than a writer of schoolbooks – there is only one of my five novels which does not draw on that passion.
I have often read articles on websites and blogs warning people of the dangers of faux amis, those French expressions which seem familiar to an English speaker but which, in fact, have a meaning so different from the equivalent English term that they present a veritable minefield for the unwary. But most of the articles I have read tend to deal only with the most obvious, the ones which, quite frankly, present very few problems. How often, for instance, have you heard somebody confuse the meanings of either pain or bras? And if somebody did confuse the different meanings of raisins, would it really matter? No, it wouldn’t. But there are some far more important ones which most of the articles I have read neglect altogether, and I have gathered together a list of ten of the words which could potentially land you in real trouble if you got them wrong. Here they are:
Prendre We all know that prendre means ‘to take’ and à means ‘to’ or ‘at’. But if someone says ‘Je vous prendrai à la gare’, he does not mean ‘I will take you to the station’. He means ‘I will pick you up at the station’. I have heard many teachers of French get that one wrong!
Terrible This is one of those awkward words that has two meanings, and only the context, or the intonation with with which it is spoken, will tell you which meaning the speaker intends. It means both ‘terrible’ and ‘terrific’, and I am sure you will all agree that there is a world of difference! You also might hear someone say, perhaps as they come out of the cinema, ‘Oh, c’était pas terrible!’. What they mean is that the film wasn’t great!
Éventuel, éventuellement During those far off days when Britain was thinking of joining Europe and was turned down by General De Gaulle, even though he had promised to admit Britain in the past, the accusations of bad faith which followed were the result of misunderstanding De Gaulle’s original words: he had spoken of l’entrée éventuelle du Royaume-Uni, which means ‘the hypothetical entry’ or ‘Britain’s entry, if it ever happens’, whereas the English ‘the eventual entry’ has a sense of inevitability about it. Beware!
Indifférent, indifféremment This doesn’t mean ‘indifferently’, it means ‘it doesn’t matter’. Thus, if you see a sign saying ‘Tournez indifféremment à gauche ou à droite’, it means it doesn’t matter which way you turn!
Agenda We often talk in English these days about somebody ‘having their own agenda’. Most French business people have un agenda – it means a diary!
Plein When an English person is asked if they would like a second helping, they often say ‘No thanks, I’m full’. Although plein means ‘full’, it is important not to use it in this context, because it has (at least) two slang meanings: ‘drunk’ and ‘pregnant’. Unless one of those (or both!) apply to you, use ‘Merci, j’ai assez mangé’ instead.
Actuel, actuellement In English we say ‘actually’ all the time, and often it’s very difficult to say what it means. In French it only means ‘happening now, at this very moment’.
Spécial In English we often say someone or something is ‘special’ when we mean to pay them a compliment, meaning they are unusually kind, pretty, humorous, whatever. There is a danger if you use the French word spécial that you are implying there is something a little odd about them, that they’re ‘an acquired taste’.
Déçu, décevoir The French verb décevoir means ‘to disappoint’, and its past participle déçu ‘disappointed. If you really want the French verb ‘to deceive’, use tromper.
Facilité The word facilité can rarely be translated as ‘facility’, particularly in the plural. If you are using it, as some do, as a euphemism to avoid saying you want to go to the loo (‘May I use your facilities?’), remember that the French are much less squeamish, and are not likely to be embarrassed by your desire to learn the whereabouts of les toilettes! Facilité means ‘skill’ or ‘aptitude’!
Finally, a word about using French slang words you may have heard. When I was teaching undergraduates, my students always spent their third year in France. When they returned for their final year I invariably found that my job had changed: they now knew about conjugating verbs and making adjectives agree, and they spoke French very fluently. However they had learned an awful lot of French slang – but without necessarily learning that it was slang. So I had to teach them when it was permissible to use certain expressions; for instance, I had to tell them that it was not acceptable when writing a formal academic essay to say something along the lines of ‘There was this guy Romeo who fancied a bird called Juliet something rotten, etc’.
I will give you the advice I always used to give them, for I believe it is still valid: You need to learn a lot of French slang, because you will hear it used all the time, so you need to be able to understand it. But it is too difficult for a foreigner to learn quickly the different levels of coarseness or obscenity involved, and above all, as a visitor to a foreign land, you want to avoid causing offence. So remember this: If you use a slang expression or a swear word, you may cause offence; but nobody has ever caused offence by failing to swear! In other words, learn the words so you can understand them, but don’t use them unless and until you know exactly what strength they imply!
Tony Whelpton is now a successful novelist but for many years he taught French at school and university level, trained teachers of French, and was co-author of over 30 school textbooks, many of them best sellers. He was also Chief Examiner in French at O and A Level and at GCSE for over a quarter of a century. He is also an experienced journalist and broadcaster: he produced and presented the first schools programme to be broadcast on UK local radio, a French programme for primary schools called Écoutez, les Enfants! broadcast on BBC Radio Nottingham from 1968 to 1970. In 1990 he was runner-up in the European Final of the Championnats d’Orthographe (the famous Dictée de Pivot); in 2009 he appeared on the BBC TV’s Mastermind, at the age of 76 – being beaten only by a subsequent winner of the title.He turned to fiction at a stage in life when most people would be reaching for pipe and slippers rather than pen and paper, and published his first novel in 2012, at the age of 79. Now, four years later, he has published five novels in all and has had the satisfaction of seeing two of them achieve very high ratings on Amazon in the Literary Fiction category.
You may follow him on Twitter (@SwallowDares) or on Facebook (Tony Whelpton Novelist), and his books are available on Amazon. His website is www.literarylounge.co.uk, although he acknowledges that updating his website sometimes gets neglected!