French,  non-fiction

Non-fiction Review: “Faux Amis” by Ellie Malet Spradbery

This is a first for Lit Addicted Brit: a review of a non-fiction. The main reason for this is that I don’t tend to read a great deal of non-fiction. I’ll read newspapers and law journals but, aside from that, most of my outside-of-work “learning” now is via televised documentaries. I think I should probably be ashamed about that. So anyway, on with this ‘first’!

Rating: 2.5 stars

Format: Paperback

Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewer program

Genre: Non-fiction – Language

Published: By Matador in 2010

What the blurb said:

A light-hearted exploration of the French language and culture and, in particular, words and phrases that could trip up the unwary linguist.

After reading this book of False Friends…you will be better able to avoid those awkward pitfalls and misunderstandings…An ideal companion for readers of French as well as travellers in France.

What I would say:

I was way more excited than I should admit when I saw this book on LibraryThing – when I was at college studying for a French A-Level (I don’t know the American equivalent, sorry!), my teacher used to have us in stitches with stories of ‘faux amis’. Literally translated, they are ‘false friends’, i.e. words that are spelt like English words but actually mean something completely different. Take, for example, une histoire – looks like ‘history’ but actually means, somewhat appropriately, ‘a story’.

Back then, my teacher’s point was to stop us being lazy and assuming we could translate things without checking. Later, I learned it was necessary to avoid major restaurant embarrassment after I ordered ‘steak tartare’ expecting a steak and receiving a lovely pile of raw diced beef with a raw egg yolk on top – not appealing to a new-to-France 17 year old…

So that’s the point of the book. I was looking forward to a better look at these common miscommunications and perhaps a couple of amusing scenarios to chuckle over. I was promised a “light-hearted exploration”, after all! What I got was a book of lists of words. Yes, it’s functional and is very helpful to someone at an intermediate level of French speaking with a love for words. But that’s it: no anecdotes; no explanations. Just translations. It’s great as that – my disappointment stems from what I expected and what I think the book could have been. And that’s entirely my own fault, not the author’s!

One high point was the section at the end on how to say some quintessentially English phrases in French, like “It’s not my cup of tea” (Ca n’est pas ma chose favorite) and “a hoo-hah” (un brouhaha) – ok, so that’s nerdy…but I liked it…

Overall: I really wouldn’t recommend this to an absolute beginner but it is a handy tool for an intermediate French speaker. It’s a very niche book and I can’t see it appealing to a reader with just a passing interest in languages but it is great as a pocket-sized resource.