fou mad, crazy. Cognate with fool, folly. Note the irregular inflections of this word: fol for masculine singular before vowel, folle and folles for feminine. It’s not uncommon to see ou-ol interchange in French. The adverb, follement, is formed from the feminine singular.
parvenir to reach; to manage to (do), to succeed in (doing). The root venir (“to come”) is cognate with the root of avenue, adventure (in the sense of “something to come”). This word, followed by à or à (faire), can be literally understood as “to come through”. French parvenu (“upstart”, “person of humble origin who has become rich”), which is also the past participle of parvenir, has entered English; it literally means “(who) has come through”.
frais fresh (food, air, etc.); cool, chilly; fee, cost, charge. fraîcheur freshness; coolness. These words are not cognate with English fresh unless traced to Proto-Indo-European. But you can use fresh as a good mnemonic for the first sense of frais. In the third sense of frais (“fee”), or rather, of a different word spelled the same, it is cognate with the root of defray (“to provide money to pay”). Or simply use fee as a mnemonic. Better yet, remember all the meanings with a link mnemonic or a chain of scenes: on a cool day, you go to a restaurant to eat fresh food, which costs a lot. The noun fraîcheur is from the feminine form of frais plus a noun suffix, taking its first two senses only; many abstract nouns are based on the feminine rather than the masculine form (see §3 of the Notes).
demeurer to remain, to stay, to live, to dwell. demeure residence, dwelling place. Cognate with demur (“to raise doubt and postpone a decision”). The root (without de-) is cognate with moratorium (“delay in payment”). Not to be confused with demure (“shy”, “modest”, “reserved”), which is not a French word even though its root is from Old French and cognate with mature. Unrelated to mourir (“to die”), whose conjugated forms include meure.
échapper to escape (cognate). Change é- to es- and ch- to c- to see the cognation. Note that English escape as a noun is évasion in French, etymologically unrelated to échapper. Also note that échapper is intransitive and must be followed by a preposition. When followed by à, it means “to escape from (someone or something)”, not “to escape to”, which would be échapper vers. When followed by de, it means “to escape from (some place)”. The “something” in échapper à quelque chose can be abstract such as a situation. For example, échapper à la prison (“to escape imprisonment”), échapper de prison (“to escape from prison”).
langue tongue; language. See also langage.
entrée entry (cognate), entrance; starter (of a meal), appetizer. This word is easy but note the second meaning. In the US and some parts of Canada, an entrée is the main dish. But in France and many other areas of the world, it’s only the starter served before the main dish. You may want to keep this in mind when dining at a French restaurant to avoid embarrassment.
chair flesh; pulp (of fruit). Cognate with carnage, doublet with carne (“meat”). Latin ca- regularly changed to cha- in French. This word is a false friend of English chair, which would be chaise (“chair” in general), chaire (“chair in university”; “pulpit in church”) in French.
sale dirty. Cognate with sallow (“of unhealthy yellow”; “dirty”) if traced to Proto-Germanic. Alternatively, use a mnemonic such as “His clothes are soiled.” Or use sully (“to damage one’s purity or integrity”) as a mnemonic. Note this word is a false friend of English sale. Also as a mnemonic, imagine that a person just arriving in the US from France doesn’t want to buy anything labeled “Sale!”. (Compare to the rumor that the Chevrolet Nova was not sold well in Spanish-speaking countries because no va means “does not go” in Spanish.)
voler to fly; to steal, to rob. vol flight; theft. volée flying. Cognate with volatile, volley (as in volleyball). It’s a frequently asked question why this word has these two very different senses, which is unique in French among various Romance languages. It is generally believed that in falconry, the bird of prey flies over and robs or steals other animals. See also volet (“shutter”), voleur (“thief”).
terrible terrible (cognate), horrible; (informal) terrific (cognate), excellent, formidable (as in French, not English). Note the meaning in informal or colloquial usage. While all derived from the same Latin source, English separates the two opposite meanings into terrible and terrific but French keeps one form, taking different meanings according to context and tone of speaking voice.
roman novel. It’s not because a novel is mostly about romance or is predominantly a love story that roman means “novel”. Instead, roman referred to the then Romance language i.e. Old French, as distinct from Latin. Since stories were told in this vulgar or popular language, the name of the language also denoted the story, and later this literary genre. Not to be confused with its doublet romain (“Roman”). Incidentally, the French word romance means “ballad”, “love song”, but it is a historical term. English romance is simply amour in Modern French. But the word romantique does mean “romantic”.
parfum perfume; flavor (of ice cream, etc.). Note the second meaning, which is not in English perfume. Isn’t this evidence that the French people are more likely subject to synesthesia, or a perception in which one sensory pathway leads to another?
soie silk. Cognate with seta (“rough hairs”, a biological term derived from the Latin word for bristle). The etymology may sound strange because silk is fine, delicate weaving material. But in medieval times, silk is imported as strings. This word is not from sī, the Chinese word for silk, which originated in China. Alternatively, use a mnemonic such as “Ladies wear silk dresses at a soirée (formal evening party).” Or use moiré as a mnemonic since it’s easy to form a moiré pattern on silk.
thé tea (cognate). The intercalation of h may be an explicit indication of aspiration in the southern Chinese word for tea, which is a convention in romanization of Chinese words by the early missionaries and sinologists in translating Chinese to a language with weak aspirations. (Another convention is to use an apostrophe instead of h.)
putain (vulgar) whore, bitch, prostitute; (vulgar) fuck (interj.), bloody hell. Spanish puta (“prostitute”), a possible cognate, has entered English vocabulary. Also possibly cognate with putrid (“rotten”, “stinky”), putrefy (“to rot”), which can sure be used as mnemonics. This word is absolutely unrelated to Russian president, commonly Latinized as Putin, and the French transliteration of his name has to be manually adjusted to Poutine to avoid confusion as well as for phonological reasons (see www.nytimes.com/2005/04/03/magazine/putinpoutine.html). Also unrelated to poutine (a type of Canadian food). See also pute (“whore”).
siffler to whistle; to hiss, to boo. sifflet whistle (n.). Cognate with sibilate (“to hiss”), sibilant (phonetic sounds when pronouncing s, sh etc. in English). While in Latin, b, v and f are often confused. The -fler ending sounds like passing air in the mouth or nose, as in souffler (“to blow”), ronfler (“to snore”), gonfler (“to inflate”), renifler (“to sniff”). So use that analogy plus the si- sound which mimics hissing or whistling as a mnemonic. For the connection of sound to meaning in a word, refer to Wikipedia or other sources on phonestheme.
langage language. This word is masculine in grammatical gender in spite of the e ending. In French, the language as a linguistic term is la langue (e.g. la langue française “the French language”, la langue maternelle “the mother tongue”), while the wording or style of speaking or writing is le langage (e.g. le langage commercial “the business language”). To remember which is which, consider that langage is derived from langue with suffix -age and not the other way around; only after we have a human language in its linguistic sense can we build on top of it and develop various styles of using the language. See also langue (“tongue”; “language”).
formidable fantastic, great. Cognate with formidable (“fearsome”). In spite of the cognation, this word does not mean “formidable” and is one of the most popular false friends. Although it could mean “formidable” as late as a century ago, the sense of “fantastic” or “extraordinary” started to take over even in Balzac’s time. English formidable may be translated into French as redoutable or simply terrible.
oreiller pillow. From oreille (“ear”). It’s not clear why “pillow” is related to “ear”, presumably because lateral sleep position is the most common (according to sleep researchers) and when you sleep on one side, the pillow takes in an ear; suffix -er generally has many meanings but here in oreiller probably indicates a receptacle. Contrast it with Spanish idiom planchar oreja, literally “to iron one’s ear”, which means “to sleep”. Alternatively, use a mnemonic such as “O’Reilly Auto Parts sells car seat cushions that can be used as pillows.” See also oreille.
crayon pencil. English crayon is from French. Note this word means “pencil”, not “crayon”. English crayon, since at least a few decades ago, has a sense of “wax” in it, and so may be called craie de cire (literally “chalk of wax”) in French, although crayon de cire (literally “pencil of wax”) is fine too. See also craie (“chalk”).
gré liking, will (n.). Cognate with grace (“free favor from God” in religious context). Often used in phrases such as contre le gré (“against the will”), à son gré (“to his liking”). See also malgré (“in spite of”).
pénombre twilight, dim-light, penumbra (cognate). Unless you know English penumbra, it helps by analyzing pénombre, where pén- is à peine (“hardly”) and -ombre means “shadow” or “shade” (cognate with English umbrella). Just don’t try splitting the word into pé- + nombre; this word is completely unrelated to nombre (“number”) and pé- makes no sense.
exciter to excite. This word looks easy but note that it (as well as excité, excitation, excitant) sometimes has a sexual connotation. In general, say je suis ému / surexcité / ravi instead of excité for “I’m excited”.
affecter to affect, to influence; to assign (a role to a person, a value to a variable); to feign. The root is from a Latin word meaning “to do”, whose derivatives understandably could mean a lot of things. Note that English affect no longer has the meaning “to assign”, and rarely means “to feign” although this meaning is well preserved in the noun affectation.
bijou jewelry. Celtic origin. Use “bead jewel” as a mnemonic. Try pronouncing d and j lightly.
chouette owl; (informal) cool (adj. or interj.), great. In the sense of “owl”, it is cognate with chough (a crow-like bird), but folk etymology believes it’s from chat (“cat”) + hurler (“to howl”), which serves as a good mnemonic. The second sense, “cool”, is not clear in origin; it’s somewhat unthinkable an interjection of “Cool!” would sound like the hoot of an owl or the meow of a cat. If you don’t like to use the unthinkable or ridiculous association as a mnemonic, use the interjection “Sweet!” instead. For old-timers, use “Swell!”. This word is unrelated to chute (“fall”).
coudre to sew, to stitch, to mend. Etymology may not help you remember the infinitive form. But the derived word couture (“sewing”, “dress making”) has entered English vocabulary as a term in fashion industry meaning “making of high-end dresses”. In many conjugated forms of this verb, the second syllable consonant is s, e.g. nous cousons, ils cousent, j'ai cousu, etc. In fact, the second syllable is cognate with English sew, suture. Note that the infinitive should not be confused with and is not related to coude (“elbow”).
morale morality (cognate). Note that this word does not mean “morale”, which, perhaps surprisingly, would be moral as a noun. (But French moral as an adjective means “moral”.) French morale of course can also be the feminine singular of the adjective moral. See also moral.
gâcher to ruin, to spoil, to mess up, to botch. If traced to Proto-Germanic, cognate with wash, waste (in the sense of “to become weaker” when said of a person’s body), with the root of devastate. The Old French source of gâcher meant “to soil” and “to wash”. Although the initial letter especially consonant rarely changed when a word developed from Latin to French, the change of w to g (which primarily happened in Parisian France) is an exception, which is the source of French garantie but English warrant, French gardien but English warden, etc. Alternatively, as a mnemonic, imagine the scene of dirty water gushing into a perfectly designed garden. See also gâter (“to spoil”).
habile clever, skillful, adroit, slick. habileté skill. Cognate with able. Related to habiller (“to dress”). But it’s better to use English able to aid memory and note h is silent. These words are unrelated to the words with root habit (note the presence of letter t), e.g. habitude (“habit”), habiter (“to live”).
injure insult (n.). injurier to insult, to swear at, to revile. Note that these words do not mean “injury”, “to injure”, respectively, which would be blessure, blesser in French. Although the English idiom add insult to injury has unofficially entered Canadian French as a calque ajouter l’insulte à l’injure, it is not understood in France because the two French words mean essentially the same thing. See a detailed description and correct translations on the Office québécois de la langue française webpage (http://bdl.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/bdl/gabarit_bdl.asp?id=2882).
déception disappointment. Cognate with deception. In spite of the cognation, this word is a false friend of English deception, which would be tromperie in French. At least as a mnemonic, imagine that a French-speaking person does not react strongly to deception as an Englishman and only shows disappointment. This French word used to mean “deception” down to at least mid-19th century, as A. Brachet’s Dict. étym. lang. française published in 1868 noted that it had the same sense as the Latin word deceptionem (“deception”). This sense change also happened in Spanish and Portuguese.
chauve bald. Cognate with callow (“immature”, “inexperienced”; previously “bald”). Chauvinism is named after “Nicolas Chauvin, a legendary and excessively patriotic soldier of the French First Republic” (Wiktionary). The surname Chauvin literally or originally means “bald man”. Alternatively, use shave as a mnemonic, or think of the common image of a group of right-wing chauvinists that are bald-headed.
parapluie umbrella. From para- (“to guard against”) + pluie (“rain”). The prefix is cognate with parry (“to ward off”), which is parer (“to fend off”) in French. If you happen to know Spanish, you may think of the word as meaning “for rain”, which serves as a good mnemonic. See also parer.
péter (slang) to fart. Cognate with fart if traced to Proto-Indo-European. Note that, completely unrelated to this, the common given name Peter in English corresponds to Pierre in French. Nevertheless, as a mnemonic, if you have a coworker named Peter, associate his name with this word for at least a few months, mentally, not verbally.
miel honey. Cognate with English molasses. From Latin mel (“honey”), hence mellitus (“about honey”), which exists in English as part of diabetes mellitus, commonly shortened to diabetes, the disease for which one symptom is sweet urine. Alternatively, use a mnemonic such as “He eats a meal with honey.” Interestingly, the Chinese word for honey, pronounced mì, is a loanword from Tocharian (a branch of the Indo-European language family), thus related to French miel. (The latest research may be the 2017 article The Word for ‘Honey’ in Chinese, Tocharian and Sino-Vietnamese, by K. Meier, M. Peyrot.)
meurtrier murderer (n.); murderous (adj.). meurtre murder (n.). These words are cognate with English murder if traced to Proto-Germanic. They don’t seem to be related to French mourir (“to die”) or English martyr. Note that there is no doublet in French matching English murder as a verb; use assassiner or simply tuer instead.
comédien actor (particularly in a theater). This is a false friend of English comedian, since un comédien (or une comédienne, “actress”) does not necessarily play in a comedy or an amusing show or drama. French humoriste matches English comedian better. Also note that in common parlance, French acteur differs from comédien in that it refers to an actor in a movie, not on a theater stage.
reporter to postpone, to push back; (reflexive) to refer, to check; reporter (n.). The sense of “reporter” is from English. In other senses, the word is a false friend of English reporter, and may be better understood literally as re- (“back”) + porter (“to carry”). While a schedule is pushed back in English, it is “carried” back in French. English reporter is journaliste in French, and English report is rapport (n.) or signaler (v.) in French. Note this word, reporter, should not be confused with rapporter (“to bring back”).
répartir to share, to distribute, to divide. Not to be confused with repartir (“to leave again”, “to restart”), which has a higher usage frequency. Historically, the sense of “to share” appeared first. When the sense “to leave again” appeared, the form for “to share” changed its prefix from re- to ré- to avoid confusion. Only as a mnemonic, think of re- for simple repetition (“again”) and the slightly less simple ré- for a less intuitive meaning, in this case, “to share”.
librairie bookstore, bookshop. This word is one of the best known false friends. It does not mean “library”, which would be bibliothèque in French. One hint that may help remember the difference is that librairie is from Latin libraria, from liber (“book”) + -aria. The suffix -aria is -ería in Spanish and the Spanish-influenced words such as cafeteria, washateria, are easily understood to be a store or shop due to the ending. Thus, in French, it’s librairie, not bibliothèque, that will be understood as a store. Alternatively, just as a mnemonic, think of -thèque as “high-tech”. A modern library has sophisticated high-tech equipment while a bookstore does not. See also bibliothèque.
palme palm tree leaf; swim fin, flipper (for swimming or diving). Note that English palm, a cognate, combines two meanings in one word: “palm tree or leaf”, which is palme in French, and “palm of hand”, which is paume in French. To help remember the difference, as a mnemonic, think of l in palme as the tree trunk while u in paume indicates the palm is spread out. The meaning “swim fin” is due to a swim fin's resemblance to a palm leaf. See also paume.
cingler to whip, to lash, to beat with a strap, fouetter; to sail. cinglé (informal) crazy. In the first sense of cingler, it’s cognate with cingle (“girdle”, “belt”), cinch (“saddle girth”). In the second sense, it’s cognate with sail if traced to Proto-Germanic, but probably influenced by the first sense (wind beats the sail). The meaning “crazy” of cinglé is from an old idiom which literally means “to beat the nose” but figuratively “to get drunk”. As a mnemonic, consider the fact that unmarried or single people are, statistically, more likely to develop dementia (become crazy) in later life.
patienter to wait, to wait patiently. While French patient has both senses of English patient, “sick person” (n.) and “willing to wait” (adj.), French patienter only means “to wait”, patiently or not, and does not mean “to become a patient”. Veuillez patienter! means “Please hold!” during a phone call.
épater to amaze, to flabbergast. épatant amazing, stupefying, splendid. The root is patte (“animal’s paw or leg”). It’s said the word originally referred to breaking off (é-) the foot (patte) of a glass, by an angry gambler (Cf. Charles Virmaître, Dictionnaire d'argot fin-de-siècle). Actually, this word is more about “to amaze or impress (with talent etc.)” than “to surprise or alarm” in general. English idiom knock off one’s feet (as on hearing one winning a grand prize) is a good match literally and figuratively, although its origin is unlikely related to this French word. If you know Spanish, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that Spanish despatarrar (where pata means “leg”) can also mean “to amaze”, as well as, if used reflexively, “to open legs wide” or “to manspread”. See also patte.
inhabituel unusual, uncustomary. Since habituel means “usual”, “customary”, “habitual”, this word with the in- prefix means exactly the opposite. Just don’t confuse it with English inhabit (which would be habiter in French) or its related words. The key to remember is that English prefix in- here means “in”, “within”, “inside” while French in- signifies negation. Thus, for instance, English inhabitable is French habitable, English uninhabitable is French inhabitable.
labourer to plow, to till. labour cultivation, plowing. Note that English labor is labeur in French; labour in French, on the other hand, refers to plowing or the hard labor of plowing the field only. To help remember which is which, as a mnemonic, recall boue (“mud”), which sounds like the second syllable of French labour or labourer, but not labeur.
chantage blackmail, extortion. From chanter (“to sing”) + -age (suffix for noun). According to J.S. Farmer's Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present published in 1891, some bad guys extorted money from singers to be performing at a London music hall. If they were refused the money, they would hoot and hiss during the show. This word has entered Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and a number of other languages spoken in areas as far as Turkey, and Russia.
embaucher to hire, to employ. From en- + bauche (“wood beam”, from bois “wood”) + -er. Here is one easy way to explain the sense development. English debauchery (“indulgence in sensual pleasures”) is from French débaucher, literally “to entice away from work”, presumably because erecting beams (as in roofing) is hard work. The opposite of prefix dé- is en-, or em- in front of b (or p). Hence the meaning of embaucher as the opposite of “to stay away from work”. See also ébaucher (“to sketch”).
épi ear (of corn, etc., e.g. un épi de maïs). Cognate with spike if traced to Proto-Indo-European. A corn ear has sharp sticks or spikes. To see the cognation, change é to s (normally you would change it to es, but sometimes to s as in the case of école, "school"). It’s always important to distinguish é from e as they represent different etymologies; epi- (“above”) is completely unrelated to this word.
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