Heading to Paris for the Olympics? Here’s a Checklist of Embarrassing Words to Avoid

There are words that look or sound similar in both French and English, but have different meanings. Mixing them up can have embarrassing consequences. Our expert gives you a handy checklist so you won’t order a croissant with a condom, when you really want a croissant with preserves.

| 28 Jun 2024 | 12:33

With the summer Olympic Games approaching, Paris is getting ready to welcome an estimated 15 million visitors between July 26 and Aug. 11. Some of the visitors will rely exclusively on English to communicate with locals. But in a country where only about 30 percent of the population speaks English, tourists might want to learn some basic French. And winging it by using words that seem like they would be the same in English and French is not advised.

To prevent unfortunate misunderstanding while visiting Paris, I’ve prepared a list of “false friends” in English and French with their real meanings and explanations.

1.Base (English) vs. Baiser (French)

Base (bays): To establish something on a foundation.

Baiser (bay-ZAY): To kiss (colloquially can mean to have sex).

Mixing up base (bays) and baiser (bay-ZAY) could land you in some pretty scandalous situations! Imagine you’re in a business meeting in Paris, and you say, “Let’s base our strategy on these figures” (Basons notre stratégie sur ces chiffres). Uh-oh, now it sounds like you’re suggesting everyone should kiss! You definitely shouldn’t initiate kissing by accident.

2. Entrée (English) vs. Entrée (French)

Entrée (AHN-tray): In English, the main course of a meal.

Entrée (ahn-TRAY): In French, entrance or appetizer.

Let’s say you’re at a fancy French restaurant and you ask the waiter, “I’d like to see the entrée menu” (Je voudrais voir le menu des entrées). Uh-oh, now it sounds like you’re asking for the appetizer menu instead of the main course! Trust me, you don’t want to accidentally order a light starter when you’re famished after a long day. Remember the difference, so you can enjoy your entrée (main course) and not an entrée (appetizer)!

3.Exhibition (English) vs. Exhibition (French)

Exhibition (eks-uh-BIH-shun): In English, a public display or show.

Exhibition (eks-ee-bee-SYAWN): In French, can also mean exhibitionism (exposing oneself inappropriately).

Picture this: you’re at an art gallery in Paris, and you tell someone, “I love going to exhibitions” (J’aime aller aux exhibitions). Uh-oh, now it sounds like you enjoy public displays of, well, a more revealing nature! So, if you don’t want to accidentally imply you’re into some very personal displays, remember the difference between French and English exhibitions.

4.Excited (English) vs. Excité (French)

Excited (ek-SY-tid): Enthusiastic or eager.

Excité (eks-ee-TAY): Aroused or sexually excited.

Mixing up excited (ek-SY-tid) and excité (eks-ee-TAY) can as well lead to some hilariously awkward moments, as happened in the series “Emily in Paris”. Emily was trying to make French phrases out of English words. And instead of saying “I am very excited to be here,” she said “I am trés excitée to be here” where “excitée” means horny. Absolutely mortifying! If you want to say you’re excited in French, try this instead – “Je suis trés ravie d’être là”.

5.Location (English) vs. Location (French)

Location (loh-KAY-shun): In English, it means a place.

Location (loh-kah-SYAWN): In French, it means rental.

Imagine you’re in Paris and you ask someone, “Can you tell me the location of a good restaurant?” (Pouvez-vous me dire la location d’un bon restaurant ?). Uh-oh, now it sounds like you’re asking where to rent a good restaurant instead of where to find one! Yes, we all want to move to Paris after the first visit. But telling your tour guide you’re looking to rent a monument would be too much. Who has that kind of money anyways?

6.Pain (English) vs. Pain (French)

Pain (payn): In English, it means physical suffering.

Pain (pan): In French, it means bread.

Mixing up pain (payn) and pain (pan) can result in some very confusing misunderstandings! Imagine you’re at a French pharmacy and you tell the pharmacist, “I’m in a lot of pain” (J’ai beaucoup de pain). Uh-oh, now it sounds like you’re saying you have a lot of bread instead of that you’re hurting! Make sure you learn emergency vocabulary correctly before you travel, just in case. Doing so could help you save time and money on vacation.

7.Preserves (English) vs. Préservatif (French)

Preserves (pri-ZERVZ): Fruit cooked with sugar to make jam.

Préservatif (pray-ZER-vah-teef): Condom.

Confusing preserves (preh-ZERVZ) and préservatif (pray-ZER-vah-teef) is perhaps the most awkward pair of all faux amis. And “Emily in Paris” once again showed us how innocent mistakes can lead to big misunderstandings. Remember when Emily tried to order a croissant with preserves. What she said and what she meant turned out to be two completely different things. Emily surprised a waiter by ordering “un croissant avec le préservatif” - croissant with a condom.

Olena Grabova, is the French language and culture advisor at the language learning platform Promova,