During the Second World War my father was involved in a modest way in the British government’s strategy of deception.
His job – mission, rather – was to travel the lanes of southern England, armed with a spanner. Whenever he came to a crossroads with one of those old metal signposts, he would release the locking bolt and spin the arms through ninety degrees. The intention was to confuse potential invaders – so any German looking for Chipping Loosely would end up in Compton-cum-Lately.
I am convinced a similar tactic, with a similar objective, was deployed by the French during the Napoleonic Wars – only, being French, it was of course rather more intellectual and infinitely more refined.
This is how it would have gone: shortly after 1804 the newly self-crowned Emperor Napoleon summoned an eminent member of the Académie Française to his book-lined office in the Tuileries to point out that the country was crawling with English spies.
Their response was to create a list of homonyms or similar sounding words that would confound and reveal any non-native speaker but would be perfectly plain to their wily French compatriots.
Only this can explain why, more than 200 years later, my wife is totally thrown when our builder Thierry phones to confirm his arrival the next morning and asks if we have a snail. That’s right, a snail. Why in heaven’s name would he require un escargot to do a small tiling job?
Further interrogation finally reveals that what he actually needs is un escabeau – a step-ladder.
French is a risky language. Confuse your matelas with your matelot in a bedding store and you could find yourself sleeping on a sailor.
It could be worse – or better, depending on your taste – mistake the sommier (the bed base) for a sommelier and your partner could turn out to be a wine waiter.
Most people know the difference between the feminine tour (a tower) and the masculine tour (a turn), but what about le vase (vase) and la vase, meaning silt or sludge?
On occasion, the sole clue is nothing more than a change of gender.
In an attempt to avoid such confusion I have long been in the habit of keeping, and regularly updating, a list of what I call faux jumeaux, false twins. If you are familiar with faux amis, you will know that they are French words which closely resemble common English words but have different meanings – such as prétendre, déception, actuellement.
Well, faux jumeaux are similar except that both words are French.
Linguistically they are blood relations, and hence twins rather than just friends.
Think épouser (to marry) and épousseter (to dust). Or chuchoter (to whisper) and chou chouter (to pamper). The list is endless: répondre (to reply) and répandre (to spread); un écran (a screen) and un écrin (a jewel box); propreté (cleanliness) and propriété (property); un ménage (a household) and un manège (several things including the merry-go-round at the funfair); une aubaine (a godsend) and une aubade (a dawn serenade).
And click on the link here if you do not know Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade.
Not that you have to stick with twins.
There are, for example, those triplets so beloved of foot-fetishists: chaussette, chausson and chaussure. Or, for the really advanced practitioner, those quirky quintuplets – terrain, terrine, terroir, terreur, and terreau.
Sometimes, if you are lucky, there is a uniting feature. For example, une épine (a thorn), une épingle (a pin) and un éperon (a spur) all have something sharp and pointy in common.
Or there may be a tenuous connection – such as renifler (to sniff) and ronfler (to snore)… or respirer (to breathe), aspirer (to inhale) and expirer (to exhale).
Likewise décollage (take-off) and décalage (jetlag). Just do not be tempted to add décolletage.
But what if there is no obvious connection?
Then you have to make one by employing that old, but effective, mnemonic trick of building a mental image that brings together the disparate objects or concepts. Perhaps visualise a cousin (cousin) sitting on a cushion (coussin).
Or a wolf (un loup), perhaps wearing a deerstalker hat, peering through a Holmesian magnifying glass (une loupe).
Even – in a variation on the needle in a haystack – try looking for a missing drill-bit (un foret) in a neighbouring woodland (une forêt).
But there are limits. A whelk (un bulot) having a job (un boulot) climbing a birch tree (un bouleau), while undeniably inventive, frankly requires more mental contortion than justifies the effort.
The greater challenge arises not with words which sound relatively similar but with those which, though spelt differently, sound absolutely identical to a foreign ear, even if the native speakers dispute this.
These are called homophones.
Take pin (pine) and pain (bread) – which, according to my Oxford-Hachette dictionary at least, are pronounced exactly the same.
Or mer and mère – which is and will remain a source of never-to-be-forgotten embarrassment. A few years back, standing on the seawall at La Rochelle alongside a couple of women, one clearly a generation older than the other, I thought I’d make a little polite conversation.
Breathing deeply and addressing the younger, I remarked – in my impeccably anglicised French – how one could smell the sea. From the woman’s shocked expression, it was evident that I had inadvertently made an observation about her mother’s personal hygiene.
You would have thought a lesson would be learned. Sadly not.
Not long after, I asked a market vendor selling goat cheese for a couple of her delicious crottins.
At least that was the intention. Unfortunately the word that came to mind – and lips – was crottes (look it up yourself if you do not know it...)
We all make mistakes – tell us some of your personal howlers, or the words you find most confusing ... at firstname.lastname@example.org