Faux amis

Philip Thody and Howard Evans: Faux Amis and Key Words: a dictionary-guide to French Language, Culture and Society (1985) (published in the US as Mistakable French)

Reference books for learning a language include some of the dullest titles ever written. At least the idea of “faux amis”, false friends, could give rise to some unintended humour. But Philip Thody (with co-author Howard Evans, although it seems to be Thody’s authorial presence dominating) provides quite enough humour from his wonderful selection of illustrative citations.

True to the principles of the best dictionaries, Thody and Evans provide citations for most of the words included – but what citations! Again and again the citation provides a wonderful illustration of the term in actual use, often showing how the term is used with widely differing connotations, as with the voter in 1958, the election where de Gaulle returned to power after an attempted military coup in Algiers, who commented to Thody: “Je voterai contre lui, monsieur. Je suis une vraie republicaine” [I’ll vote against de Gaulle. I’m a true republican].

So is this the perfect reference book? Meets the needs of the reader, makes language learning fun, and full of apposite quotations?

Certainly one of greatest: perfect for its purpose. Unfortunately the arrangement of the book is anything but perfect. In fact the book all but shoots itself in the foot by the questionable decision of the authors to have a thematic order of entries. Instead of a plain A-Z layout, the book is arranged in ten thematic sections, numbered with roman numerals – for example, section VII is “travel and health”. Now, most readers will not browse such a book; they will want to find an example of a word being used in one or other section. Unfortunately the index is inadequate. Terms are listed not to a page but to a section, using the roman numeral. I have used this book extensively and I still can’t remember that “VII” stands for “travel and health”. Hence I often have to look up a word in more than one section to find what I am looking for.

Worse, because the entries themselves are discursive, each entry often includes several confusable terms. Yet only the first term is listed in the index. For example, the entry for “peine” describes it as “not pain, la douleur, but sadness … and in a legal context, sentence. But “douleur” does not appear anywhere in the index.

Even the headwords themselves are cumbersome to retrieve because every term has to be looked up twice – first in the index, then in the section iteslf, which confused me, and I suspect the authors were equally lost, because the same or similar entries appear in more than one section. Thus, concussion appears in section III (economics and industry), where it belongs,  but also in section VII (health), where an English reader might expect to find it. There the reader is told the French equivalent for the English word “concussion” is commotion – a word that does not appear in the index.

In other words, an excellent and entertaining reference book, but sadly let down by its poor organization.