French Letters

It is the bane of any new language learner: you’re beginning to build your confidence in your new language, but your vocabulary isn’t yet as wide as you would like it to be… you read a word which looks deceptively like a word in your own language… but is it a cognate or a false friend?

The concept of a linguistic ‘false friend’ exists in many languages and, in some cases, even between regional speakers of the same language! The first visit my American pen-pal made to the UK – back in the 1980s – revealed a few of these… She was decidedly taken aback when my schoolgirl-self started to giggle after she asked me, poker-faced, whether she needed to bring her ‘fanny pack’.

Only when she revealed the offending item to me, did I realise she was wondering whether to bring her bag with her: “Oh, you mean your bumbag!” I told her, relieved.

“Bumbag!” she exclaimed in horror. I guess you could say she was ‘grossed out’ by the idea. And I don’t mean ‘gross’ in the sense of the old-fashioned unit of counting either (which, of course, originally has its roots in the French ‘grosse douzaine’).

American English and British English abound with such deceptive linguistics. Not the least of which is the rubber… Which, when demanded from an American, would produce an altogether different result than one might expect.

The eraser/ rubber confusion reminds me of a story a friend related to me about another false friend.

This particular lady was browsing around picturesque stalls in a lovely, rural French market when she came across a wonderful stall of homemade ‘confiture’ run by a very pleasant and chatty elderly French woman. Inspired by the pretty jars in front of her, my friend found herself thinking about the plum tree in her garden at home, over-laden with fruit, and began to interrogate the source of her inspiration about some tips on the best way to convert this fruit into some tasty preserves of her own.

In the excitement of her jam-based anticipation, however, she quite forgot the correct vocabulary and began by asking the rather bemused stall-holder what she used as a ‘preservatif’.


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