Easy French Lesson 9: False Cognates

Easy French Lesson 9: False Cognates:

French False Cognates are spelled similar to English, but have no related meanings.

Previous Lessons One through Seven list words in English and French with similar spellings and similar meanings.

The previous Lesson Eight explains Cognates that look alike and have different meanings -- but do suggest the correct meanings.

For example, LIBRAIRIE in French, is different from the English word it resembles (library) because it means bookstore, but similar in that both have to do with books.


This lesson examines a related topic – French False Cognates with spelling similar to English -- but with different and misleading meanings than the English words they resemble -- not at all related to the meanings of those English words.

This lesson will take you to yet another level of similarities-with-differences between English and French.


In these Easy French Lessons are letters written by someone taking a first trip to France -- and discovering that many French words are similar to English words.

Read French Words In English Sentences

The following letter in English has a few French words mixed in. This starts you reading a few French words in the easiest way – in a context of familiar English words in English sentences.

Reading French words in English sentences is the very easiest way to begin to read French.

In the following story, the FRENCH WORDS are IN CAPITAL LETTERS.



Dear Billy Bob,

After I was here in France I began to realize that some of the words that look related to English do not have the same meaning in French as English.

First of all, I was mistaken about some of the signs.

I saw the sign TRAITEUR on several buildings and thought -- gee --they label the houses of traitors even though WW II ended fifty years ago --until I found out that LE TRAITEUR means delicatessen in French.

I kept seeing signs GRAND MAGASIN -- which I thought was an important magazine, until I asked for it at the newsstand -- and was told it means department store.

Another sign I saw on stores is SOLDES, which I assumed was like a SOLD label on a FOR SALE sign in real estate -- until I found out it means the business was merely having a sale with reduced prices and with the occasional L'OCCASION, which means bargain in French.

Actually, the French word SALE means dirty.

Another mistaken assumption I made was about the signs DÉFENSE DE FUMER. Well, I had found out that the French word FUMER means to smoke cigarettes. So I assumed the sign was for some pro-smoking rally to fight back against the few non-smoking sections in French restaurants, which should really be labeled second-hand smoking sections since almost everyone seems to smoke here. But actually DÉFENSE DE FUMER means just the opposite -- NO SMOKING.

The first hotel I checked into had a sign AVEC DOUCHE, and I thought -- well, I've always heard about the French bidet's in bathrooms that are used for a douche, so I might as well try one. Then when I got to my room, I found out the sign DOUCHE really means SHOWER. How embarrassing.

Another somewhat embarrassing thing -- at first I kept passing by signs that said LES CABINETS, until I realized they are the men's and women's toilets -- just what I was looking for.

I still keep trying to read some newspaper stories, with the help of all the words that look like English.

One story seemed to be about Mars, until I figured that MARS also means the month of March.

I thought PERSONNE simply meant person, until I found out it also means nobody.

I've also stumbled over other words that have different meanings than they appear to, until I asked someone.

Here are some examples:

LE PAIN is bread.

LE COIN means corner.

LE SON is sound.

LE DENT means tooth.

LE VENT is wind.

LES HABITS are clothes.

L'HAÏR is hatred.

L'ETIQUETTE means label.

L'INTOXICATION is food poisoning.

LE CHAMP means field.

LA PAROLE is talk.

And at first I thought the French people were very demanding, until I found out the French verb DEMANDER simply means to ask, not to demand.

And some of the French names for places can be confusing.

And a pantry they call L'OFFICE.

NICE is a city in France.

I’ve found at least one French word that means what it appears to but also means something else too. Yesterday I was on UN TOUR of UN CHATEAU when I saw a sign that said LE TOUR, because it means tour but also means tower.


I am taking some French lessons to learn how to talk French. MON PROFESSEUR is Pierre, and he is giving me lessons in UN CAFÉ. He is teaching me some tricks to learn French faster.

I’m also beginning to realize that some of the words that sound related to English do not have the same meaning in French as English.

For example, the word meaning yes in French (OUI) is pronounced like the English word: “we”.

And the word meaning ‘no’ in French is spelled like the English word ‘non’, but it is pronounced more like a different English word: “known”.

Some of their French numbers sound like other words in English. If you say "sank - cease - set - wheat" in English, it is almost the same as saying the French numbers for 5,6,7,8.

Or if you say some names in English to a Frenchman, he hears a French word.

For example, "Barb" sounds like beard in French (LA BARBE).

"Len" sounds like wool in French (LE LAINE).

"Kay" sounds like the French word for pier (LE QUAI).

And in French, "Sol" is dirty (SALE), and

"Mort" is dead (MORTE)!

That's the name for the sound of each "Moe", that is to say, word (LE MOT).

LE FIN -- the end.

Regards, Candice


In the previous lessons you have seen how French and English “share” thousands of words which, in their written form at least, are identical or strikingly similar.

If every one of the look-alike words meant the same thing in both languages, that would be Super-Easiest French. Then you could go to Paris and just assume that any French word that looks remotely familiar means the same thing as its English cognate that you already know.

But there are False Cognates that look similar but do not mean the same thing in French and English.

Your first reaction when you see a French word spelled identically to English may be to think it means what you learned it means — in English. It's an unavoidable reaction, at first, until you become aware that with some look-alikes you will need to retrain yourself.

For example, L'ART DES AFFAIRES does not mean the art of affairs — it mean the art of business. And likewise UN VOYAGE DES AFFAIRES is not a trip on a singles cruise ship, but rather a business trip.

There is a story about the British department store Marks and Spencer opening a branch in Paris, and they carried jams labeled with the British word for them – LES PRESERVES -- before the company discovered how close that was to the French word for condoms.

So now that you have seen some of the many similarities in French-English vocabulary, be aware that there are pitfalls in some French words that look similar to English (or sound similar).

Sometimes those French words that look like English mean entirely different things.

Other times the French word has another primary meaning other than its exact English equivalent.

The two languages have in common many words which are similar in form but partially or totally different in meaning. This is true, for example, of CAVE, DENTURE, TERRIBLE, and VERSATILE among many others.

These False Cognates are sometimes called False Friends in English, (or Faux Amis in French, which means False Friends).

It is this resemblance in form which, for some pairs of words, is a dangerous trap for any English-speaker setting out to learn French.

If the adopted French word is technical or specialized, its original meaning may have been retained.

But in many cases the cognates have diverged, partially or totally, to have different meanings and to differing degrees. There have been greater or lesser shifts in meaning, as well as specialization or generalization, loss of some meanings, or the acquisition of new meanings.

A word which in English is in everyday use may be limited in French to a particular use such as formal, literary, technical (medical, legal, etc.).

This lesson does not confine its treatment of "cognates" to pairs of words in French and English which have a common origin; it also includes words whose similarity in form is purely coincidental, such as pain / LE PAIN (bread) and also chat / LE CHAT (cat).

False Cognates are another reason why these lessons are essential. In learning a new language related to your native language, one of the first things you must deal with is the way it overlaps your first language. Cognates that look identical or somewhat similar may have similar -- or different -- meanings.


Some of these False Cognates spelled exactly alike are listed below.

For each English word (in the left column), its French equivalent (in the middle column) is misleading in that it is spelled identically to a totally unrelated English word.

As mentioned in the earlier lesson on identical look-alikes, French pronunciation differs so greatly from English that the different sound helps reduce possible confusion of these cognates. Any confusion is thus limited to the visual word -- since it becomes, in effect, a different sound when spoken. So the seeming disadvantage of a different pronunciation which must be learned for a French look-alike is actually an advantage that can help you realize that a particular look-alike word has a different meaning.


tooth -- la dent -- [dahng]

wind -- le vent -- [vahng]

label -- l’etiquette -- [eh-tee-keht]

clothes -- les habits -- [ah-beet]

talk -- la parole -- [pah-rohl]

bargain -- l’occasion -- [oh-kah-see-ohng]

hotel (small) -- la pension -- [pahng-see-ohng]

department (in store) -- le rayon -- [ray-ohng]

errand -- le course -- [koorss]

blouse -- le corsage -- [kohr-sahzh]

policeman -- l’agent -- [ah-zhahng]

pantry -- l’office -- [ohf-fees]

candor -- la franchise -- [frahn-shees]

audience -- l’assistance -- [ahs-see-stahns]

gasoline -- l’essence -- [ehs-sahns]

deposit -- le caution -- [koh-see-ohng]

concussion -- la commotion -- [kohm-moh-see-ohng]

renting -- la location -- [loh-kah-see-ohng]

location -- la situation -- [see-tew-ah-see-ohng]

transfer -- le translation -- [trahns-lah-see-ohng]

tip (money) -- la gratification -- [grah-tee-fee-cah-see-ohng]


French False Cognates Spelled Somewhat Like Their English Equivalent.

While these French False Cognates are spelled exactly like a different English word, the first few letters of each are the same as their English equivalent, which may can serve as a way to remember the correct meaning.


March (month) -- le mars -- [mars]

plaza -- la place -- [plahs]

sound -- le son -- [sohng]

corner -- le coin -- [kwahng]


The lists above focus on False LOOK-Alikes.

The lists below focus on False SOUND-Alikes.



Since all languages are based primarily on sounds, it is inevitable that different languages use some of the same sounds to mean different things.

Some French words sound like totally different English words.


French Cognates That Sounds Like Something Else in English


gold -- or -- [or]

arm -- bras -- [bra]

salt -- sel -- [sell]

ice cream -- glace -- [glass]

pork -- porc -- [pour]


pipe -- pipe -- [peep]

style -- style -- [steel]

list -- list -- [least]

six -- six -- [cease]

date (fruit) -- date -- [dot]


False Look-Alikes that Sound like a Third Thing

Each French word below is spelled exactly like a different English word,

And also sounds like yet another different English word.


pasta -- pate -- [pat]

hatred -- haïr -- [air]

penis (colloq.) -- bite -- [beet]

battery -- pile -- [peel]

bed -- lit -- [lee]

tip (end) -- bout -- [boo]

slowly -- fort -- [for]

chance -- sort -- [sore]

four -- pour -- [poor]


The first thing about these false sound-alikes is to be aware that such misleading French sound-alikes exist, so that you become aware that a French word you hear that sounds like an English word may mean something different.

The second thing about these false sound-alikes is better: they can be used to your advantage. They are French sounds you already know how to make from English (although you've learned to associate that sound in English with a different meaning). So the pronunciation of those English words can serve as your guide to the French sounds of words that mean something different.

So the seeming disadvantage of a different meaning which must be learned for a French sound-alike is actually an advantage that can help you realize that this sound-alike word has a different meaning.

For example, if you’re listening to French and you hear the word “bra”,

You can be happy that “bra” is a sound you recognize from English,

As long as you remember that in French “bra” means ‘arm’.


Many More False Cognates

French has many of these False Cognates. So you need to be aware that when you see or hear a word similar to English, you cannot assume it has the same meanings as the look-alike English word.

In this lesson the list of false look-alikes is only partial. There are also many near look-alikes, spelled somewhat similarly, that have different meanings in the two languages.

There are entire books devoted to differentiating all these French Cognates or False Friends (Faux Amis in French).

The previous Lesson Eight explains Cognates that look alike and have different meanings -- but do suggest the correct meanings.


Humorous False Cognates

If a Frenchman offers you what at first sounds in English like a sack-o'-dough, do not get excited by the prospect of free money. He is talking about a backpack (sac au dos, dos meaning back).

Imagine yourself on your first day in France. If you try to tell someone that you are traveling alone "sole" (seule), instead you may accidentally say you are traveling drunk - "sool" (soûl). (This actually happened -- see web page humor-traveling-in-france-alone.)


This lesson has described what are sometimes referred to as ‘false cognates’, and this lesson has used that term for consistency and clarity.

However, ‘false cognates’ are more properly referred to as ‘false friends’, because technically ‘cognates’ are strictly words that are similar in spelling and meaning.




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