Federalism and “False Friends”

An extensive analysis of linguistic misunderstandings

, by Richard Mayne

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Federalism and “False Friends”

“Federalism,” wrote the British constitutional lawyer A.V. Dicey in 1939, “substitutes litigation for legislation.” It was a chilling remark, but a useful reminder. In litigation as much as in legislation, precise wording is obviously vital; and translation in both is full of pitfalls. The best known are so-called “false friends” – words or expressions that appear the same in two languages, but have different meanings in each. French and English form a happy hunting-ground.

In France, the word “demander” means only to ask or request. Woe betide the translator who renders it into English as “demand” – which is far more peremptory, and in some contexts can sound rude. This error is rumoured to have provoked a diplomatic incident. Another, which I witnessed myself, was made by the official interpreter whom the late President Georges Pompidou brought with him to London when Britain was seeking to join the European Community, as it was then called. The President had said – on television – that he well understood the emotional bonds between Britain and the Commonwealth. His interpreter translated “liens sentimentaux” as “sentimental links”. He should perhaps have said “links of sentiment”: but his actual words implied that those links were mawkish, false, or a blend of both.

These are plain instances of how “false friends” can affect diplomatic relations. But there are many that merely confuse ordinary people. “Actuel” means “present-day”, not “actual”; “une bribe” is a fragment (of music or talk), not a bribe; “un courtier” is not a courtier, but a broker; “descente de lit” (“bedside mat”) was misread, by a translator of Jean Cocteau, as “getting out of bed”. The alphabet could continue indefinitely.

Translation remains the problem, especially when the words in each language appear the same. And “false friends” are not the only culprits. Less usual suspects also carry burdens from the past. These are words and expressions that are directly translatable, and sometimes virtually identical, on either side of the Straits of Dover, but which have historic or political overtones so divergent as to mislead all but the most alert. The British Section of the Franco-British Council is currently preparing a short bilingual list of them. Its proposed title is Nuances.

Examples of misleading word-pairs

A prominent recent example is “suburb”. In English, the word signifies the area between a city and the surrounding countryside, a peaceful, leafy, and largely middle-class habitat of detached or semi-detached houses with gardens and local bowling clubs – the sort of place that appears reassuring in the early reels of some American horror films, only for mayhem to burst later on to the tranquil scene. Such places are sometimes mocked or even despised by intellectuals. But they are far removed from what “banlieue”, the direct translation of “suburb”, often means in practice in France. True, some French suburbs resemble those in Britain or America, with quiet “pavillons” or villas inhabited by commuters. Not all, however. Especially around Paris, but also outside several big towns, other banlieues are semi-urban wastelands of tower-block poverty and sporadic violence, unsparingly portrayed in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine, and exploding in real riots in 2006.

“Suburb” and “banlieue” are extreme examples. Other pairs of words are no less misleading. “Conservative” and “conservateur” have likewise been celebrated traps. “Conservateur” is the normal French translation of “Conservative” (as of the political party); but “conservateur” with a small “c” means “conserving” (as in jam). So “un agent conservateur”, which might suggest a Conservative Party official, actually means a “preservative”. An unfortunate European Union official is said to have offered “préservatif” as the French translation of that word, unaware that in English this meant “condom”.

A less pungent instance is the word “radical”, apparently identical in both English and French. In both languages, obviously, it can mean “of or by the root”, implying (when linked to “change”, for example) fundamental, visceral, ground-breaking novelty. But in French, unlike English, the same word evokes the Radical Party, a rather old-fashioned entity described by some as politically left-of-centre and economically right-wing.

Citoyen”, too, has connotations in France that “citizen” lacks in Britain. Most obviously, it evokes the Marseillaise: “Aux armes, citoyens!” And it has a sense of noble independence not unlike that of the word “yeoman” in English. A French citizen is proud to be so called, and mildly puzzled that the British accept the title of “British subject”, which seems to smack of subjection.

Republican” is a cognate example. Barely heard in Britain, except by and of fierce opponents of the monarchy, it is of course used most often in the United States to denote the eponymous political party. In France, by contrast, the word “républicain” conveys a sense of pride and virtue, an allegiance to the principles of the 1789 Revolution, because the French Republic has been interrupted by two Napoleonic Empires and one Vichyite French State.

Marshal Pétain’s wartime “État français” is another reason why the word “état” still has a somewhat negative ring in French, suggesting over-powerful authority even more strongly than the word “state” does in English. Far more approving in French is the word “national” used much more than in Britain, where the adjectives most often replacing it are “royal” and “British” – with perhaps “federal” in the United States.

...three words that concern any federalist European: Europe, constitution and federalism.

Words change their meanings too – even in France, despite the Académie Française. Long before the internet signalled the invasion of nerdish Americana, casual French speakers had begun to succumb to franglais. “Opportunité” strictly means “opportuneness”, not “opportunity” (which is “occasion”); but some twenty years ago it began to be fashionable to misuse the word as if it were indeed its English homonym. Similarly, “réaliser” in French can be translated as “realise”, in the sense of “making real”, as applied to realising assets. But it is not the counterpart of the English verb “realise” (to become aware of), which strictly should be “se rendre compte”. However, under the influence of English, more and more French people may say “réaliser” instead.


There are three words, finally, that deeply concern any federalist European. One is “Europe”. To too many British people, this word means “continental Europe”, not Europe as a whole, still less as an integrating entity. By their own use of language, they prejudice their future. The second word is “constitution”. To the French, a constitution is a written document, subject to amendment and even replacement. To most Britons, their own constitution is something profound, organic, age-old, unwritten, and deeply resistant to change. Hence, in part, their hesitancy about the proposed European constitution. Their political reactions were unconsciously determined by language itself.

And the same applies, of course, to federalism.

“Federal” to most continental Europeans, means just what it implies: the taking of decisions at the appropriate level – local, regional, national, and so on up to world level if and when that becomes feasible. But far too many Britons mistakenly believe that “federal”, in Europe, means “centralised”, “tightly integrated”, even “dictatorial”. The press, in Britain, is full of such errors, often venomously expressed. Language matters. We should pay it the attention it deserves.


Misunderstandings - I only try to be nice, source: Flickr


This is the abridged version of the article, which was originally published in the November 2006 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World

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