French is littered with pesky ‘faux amis’ – words that look or sound the same or similar as English words but mean something entirely different.
They can be harmless, inconvenient, or downright embarrassing. Here are some of the irritating false friends to watch out for if you are living or travelling in French-speaking Switzerland.
You want to tell your Swiss French friend you’re very excited about something? ‘Excité’ sounds like the word you should use, right? Unfortunately not. You just told your friend you were ‘aroused’, probably not what you were going for. ‘Enthusiaste’ is better.
So you’ve accidentally let out a loud burp at a dinner party. Cringing of embarrassment, you quickly issue an ‘apologie’. The only trouble is that in French, you’ve just told them that you ‘condone’ or ‘justify’ such table manners. ‘Pardon’ and ‘excusez-moi’ are both polite alternatives.
While a well-meaning English-speaker might feel the temptation to throw out a ‘blessez-vous’ when someone sneezes, try not to. In French, the verb ‘blesser’ doesn’t mean ‘to bless’ but ‘to injure’. The expression to use here is ‘à vos souhaits’. Incidentally, ‘injurier’ means ‘abuse’.
Don't say 'blessez-vous'. Photo: Knut_Wiarder/Depositphotos
Looking for a chair at a party? Use the word ‘chaise’. ‘Chair’ in French means flesh and you might get some weird looks if you tell the party hosts you’re looking for some.
This one could easily get your knickers in a knot. Especially since ‘slip’ in French translates into ‘men’s briefs’. If you’ve slipped on the snowy Swiss streets and you want to tell your friends about it, better to use the verb ‘glisser’.
While we're on the subject of underwear, it’s best not to go into a shop’s lingerie section and ask for un ‘bras’ (silent s) – you’ve already got two of those; they’re your arms. The word for a bra is ‘soutien-gorge’.
You have a brutal headache and you head to the local pharmacy in search of pills to cure you. But don’t say ‘piles’, since that actually means batteries.
Speaking of which, don’t ask for a ‘batterie’ if your camera/watch/gadget has run out of power, because that means both ‘drum kit’ and an artillery grouping.
Ask for the ‘librairie’ and you’ll be directed to a bookshop (where you have to pay) rather than a library (which is free). The word for library is ‘bibliothèque’.
Looking for the library? Don't ask for the 'librarie'. Photo: Kevin Wong/Flickr
An easy one to get wrong, you might think ‘sensible’ means the same in both English and French, but that’s not so. In French it means ‘sensitive’ – probably not the best word to use when describing yourself in a job interview. Try ‘raisonnable’ instead.
One of the most two-faced of false friends is the verb ‘s’introduire’. Naturally, you would think it means ‘to introduce’. It actually means ‘to penetrate, insert or enter’. So next time you meet a group of Swiss French people and you want to suggest you should all introduce each other, the verb you’re looking for is ‘se présenter’.
Yes, ‘de luxe’ means luxury, but if you want to say ‘luxurious’ don’t try to say it with a French accent, because it will probably come out as ‘luxurieux’ which means ‘lustful’ or ‘lascivious’ – and that luxurious hotel you spent the weekend in starts to sound more like a swingers club.
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Everyone knows this one. ‘Préservatif’ doesn't mean ‘preservative’ at all – it’s actually the word for ‘condom’. Not one to muddle up.
You can use ‘ignorer’ to mean ‘ignore’, but that’s not the most common usage. Most of the time if someone says ‘j’ignore…’, it means they don’t know something (ie, they are ignorant of…). If you want to express the English meaning of ‘ignore’, you should try the more long-winded ‘je ne tiens aucun compte de…’
If your friend is telling you about a big ‘deception’, don’t assume that someone’s tried to pull the wool over their eyes. The word doesn’t have the same sense in French – it actually means ‘disappointment’. Likewise the verb ‘decevoir’ means to ‘disappoint’, not ‘deceive’. Deception/to deceive in French would be ‘tromperie’/’tromper’.
Monnaie doesn't mean money, it means loose change. So technically it's easy to pay for things in French-speaking Switzerland when you have no 'monnaie' – you could have notes, after all – but if you have no money, well then you're going home empty handed.
No change? That's monnaie, not coins. Photo: Marcel Grieder/Flickr
On the subject of money, ‘coin’ in French has nothing to do with cash – it means ‘corner’ or ‘neighbourhood’.
No, your friend’s ‘ancien’ husband isn’t really really old, he’s just her ex – ‘ancien’ usually means ‘former’, rather than ‘ancient’.
You’re telling a mate about this great event you’re off to – but don’t use ‘attendre’ to mean ‘attend’ or they’ll look at you a bit funny because it means ‘to wait’. Instead, use another false friend – ‘assister à’ – which doesn’t mean ‘assist’ but ‘attend’. Got that?
If you’re out shopping and want to know if something’s on sale, don’t use ‘sale’ in French – that actually means dirty. Sales in the shops are called ‘soldes’.
Speaking of which, the word ‘action’ in French-speaking Switzerland has nothing to do with physical actions. It’s another word for ‘sale’ or ‘special offer’ – a good word to look out for in the usually pricey Swiss shops.