Fillers When I use a word

Faux amis

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 28 April 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1006
  1. Jeff Aronson, clinical pharmacologist (jeffrey.aronson{at}
  1. Oxford

    An English rugby fan, in Paris for a Six Nations match, wants a beer. He doesn't know that beer is served in un café or un bistro, but asks the concièrge for a pub. The concièrge is puzzled. La pub means publicity (il aime beaucoup la pub), not a public house. OK, what about une maison publique? Ah, now the concièrge understands. She points out the nearby red light district.

    Our friend has fallen foul of the phenomenon known as faux amis, or false friends, foreign words that seem to mean one thing but actually mean another. The term was put on the map in a dictionary called Les Faux Amis, ou les Trahisons du Vocabulaire Anglais, by Maxine Koessler and Jules Derocquigny (Librairie Vuibert, 1928). The French word sensible, for example, means not sensible (sage, raisonnable) but sensitive, a meaning that we recognise in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. And faux amis are not limited to French. In Spanish simpatia means friendship not sympathy. In Dutch een verloren hoop, the origin of the English phrase “a forlorn hope,” actually means a lost troop of soldiers. And when in Germany it does well to remember that Gift means a poison not a present (Geschenk) and when visiting a pharmaceutical factory that Präservativ means a condom not a preservative (Konservierungsmittel).

    Doctors travelling in France may need to be aware of some medical faux amis. La médicine libérale is not, alas, free at the point of delivery; in fact, quite the reverse—it means private practice, since the members of les professions libérales are those who receive fees for their labours. And un médecin de permanence is not a doctor with a tenured position but merely one who is on duty.

    Looking for over the counter drugs? Don't ask for une droguerie, which is a hardware store. What you want is une pharmacie. And when you're there ask for médicaments, not drogues, unless you want to risk arrest. If it's prescription drugs you're after, go to the doctor's surgery (cabinet, not chirurgie) and ask for une ordonnance, not une prescription, which is a chit for a medical appliance or simply an instruction. If the doctor refers you to the hospital don't ask for la clinique; that means a private hospital, not an outpatient clinic.

    If you're an academic and have been invited to speak at a symposium, don't say that you have come to give une lecture (a reading), but une conférence (a lecture). And for those lecturing on Viagra, impotent means crippled, not impotent, which is impuissant.

    As bad as these false friends are, worse perhaps are fickle friends, which sometimes mean what you think they mean and sometimes not. Tension, for instance, means tension, but also blood pressure and sometimes high blood pressure. And in the family planning clinic try to remember that fertilité refers to the land; the word you want there is fécondité.

    After all of which, I think I need a quick one at la maison publique.


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