French is beautiful, rich, and highly influential and has a reputation as one of the world's most romantic languages. However, there's one feature of French that never fails to irritate me: its ability to borrow English words and twist their meaning in a way to make them easily misunderstood by English speakers. It's the linguistic equivalent of borrowing a friend's car and turning it into a flowerbed.
This phenomenon is not limited to French and probably occurs in most languages that have borrowed from other sources. English is certainly also guilty of it. In the 1980s, if you asked for 'skor' (a Swedish word) in a Swedish shop, you would be handed a pair of shoes. If you asked for 'skor' in an American shop, you'd get a chocolate bar with toffee. Similarly, if you ask for a praline (or, more correctly, a "praliné") in France, you may get a sweet paste used to fill chocolates or even a small chocolate itself. If you ask for a praline in the United States, especially Louisiana, you'll get a chocolate-free treat consisting of pecans and caramelized sugar. It should be noted, though, that even in English, the definition of "praline" changes in different dialects, with British English retaining a meaning closer to the French source term.
In French, however, the contortion and distortion of English words (known as "faux anglicismes" or "false anglicisms") seem particularly widespread. And, to be fair, usually there is some logical connection somewhere between the English word in French and the English word in English, even if the connection isn't readily apparent, especially without context. A French-language inventories that lists "20 pulls" might befuddle an English speaker who does not speak French. A "pull" is a pullover or a sweater. Similarly, a reference to "20 smokings" might be equally confusing. It does not mean 20 cigarettes, cigars, or even smokers. It means 20 dinner jackets or 20 tuxedos, with the link being a contortion of the somewhat archaic English term "smoking jacket."
If a French article refers to "les people," it is not talking about the general public or about humanity, but specifically about celebrities (VIPs or very important people). If someone says he or she will send you a 'mail', don't wait for the letter carrier. A 'mail' in French is specifically an e-mail'. However, "mailing" refers to mass-mailings (which could involve the post) of materials to recipients. French speaker announces that he or she is going off in search of a "self," the individual is not embarking on a deep, existential journey. He or she is simply going to the nearest self-service restaurant. If a colleague tells you that you'll be picked up in a "car," it's not what you might think. A "car" in French is a bus or van.
A number of these "faux anglicismes" are formed using English gerunds, as exemplified by "smoking" above. Along those lines, if someone asks you for a "planning," the speaker is requesting a timetable or schedule. If someone is on the way to a "pressing," the person is headed to the drycleaner's. If a French couch potato talks about his or her "training" or "jogging," it probably isn't a lie. They both refer exclusively to an article of clothing known in English as a jogging suit or a tracksuit. "Bowling" doesn't refer to the sport of bowling, but rather to a bowling alley. By the same token, a "dancing" doesn't mean the act of dancing, but to a dance hall. "Shampooing" doesn't indicate the act of washing your hair but specifically "shampoo" (the product you use to wash your hair). And if a French person mentions "footing," he or she is talking about a hiking expedition.
Less frustrating are anglicisms that have been adopted in French and slightly altered, yet still understood, or may have retained the original English meaning but have become old-fashioned or outmoded in English. An example of the latter is "WC," which comes from the English expression "water closet" for a toilet. The word is alive and well in French, although in English it has largely fallen into disuse and often appears quaint or retro if used in English. The former may be illustrated by the French terms "shake-hand" and "talkie-walkie," which, respectively, mean "handshake" and "walkie-talkie" in English.
A list of these false cognates appears at Les faux anglicismes (website in French). It should be noted that in French-speaking Canada and other French-speaking countries outside France, these terms may not be used. The list also gives the date when each word entered the French language. Interestingly, yet not surprisingly, many of these terms entered French during the 20th century, a period marked by a dramatic increase in international travel and globalization.
(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)
Author of WICKER PARK WISHES, a novel, published by Eckhartz Press "It's like 'Hi Fidelity' from a woman's perspective. A 90s book about relationships." - John Siuntres, WordBalloon. Language discussion and expression, a view from the city: "A fascinating and enlightening look at language and other important matters" - Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune "...definitely an interesting voice!" - Languagehat.com "...a great site!" - Mary Beard, Times Literary Supplement
You can show off your jogging at the bowling if it's on your planning, but never play baby-foot in the pipi-room
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