Friday, 11 September 2015

Faux Amis

I’ve probably got the grammar wrong; it’s supposed to mean ‘False Friends’ and it’s the French term for pairs of words — one English, one French — which look the same as each other, but in fact have very different meanings. They can get the learner in either direction into trouble sometimes. I suppose they must exist between any two languages, or at least any two that are of the same or close families. Certainly it can happen between Greek and English; a friend of mine wanting a Nescafé with milk actually managed to call the waiter a wanker, and I once asked a mechanic if I could borrow his exorcist. Best of all, a French woman asked the waiter not for the bill but for the orgasm.

I came across a small one this morning at the baker’s; there was a tray of what we would call in England ‘Fairy Cakes’ (and a foreigner might have to be careful with that one); they were labelled, in Greek, ‘Atomic cakes’. I bought one to have with my coffee and asked for reassurance that it wouldn’t explode. The baker must have studied a bit of English because instead of looking blank she laughed. Our English ‘Atom’ derives from the Greek for ‘Uncuttable’, but whereas in English the word has come to mean the smallest possible piece of a substance, in Greek it has come to mean ‘Individual’. One asks for a room in a hotel for ‘Dyo atoma’; ‘Two individuals’, so an atomic cake is a cake for one. The Greek word for ‘Atomic’ in the English sense is ‘Piriniko’, that is to say, ‘Of the pip’, meaning the stone at the centre of a fruit, i.e. the nucleus.


No comments:

Post a Comment