Saturday, 20 February 2021

False Friends

In the memory of a language teacher and one-time learner of foreign languages the term faux ami looms large (what other way is there to  loom, come to think of it?). I first met it with reference to parent in a French lesson in the mid sixties. In those unenlightened days (this post introduces the idea of écriture inclusive, in case it has passed you by) the right way to say "my parents" was  mes pères (and your mère didn't count); as I remember, mes parents meant "my ancestors". But, language developing the way it does and given the spread of Globish, this is no longer the case;  the "ancestors" meaning survives only in the better dictionaries, but as a literary convention:


And the term faux ami, in those days at least, was necessarily French. In my brief introduction to German I did not meet a falsches Freund (not sure about that ending; German best before end Nov 1969). The  German teacher said faux ami too (though she also taught French, so maybe she just didn't bother with code-switching in her meta-language). And in later studies I met neither falsos amigos nor falsi amici (although it wouldn't surprise me if of late such expressions have become current).

When, much later, I was training to teach ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages)  the term "false friend" had become all the rage  – even among francophone student teachers. So I've come to use the term. And in my various ramblings about language and translation I mention it here and there; two cases spring to mind:

  • terrible (links to old post, but here's the relevant bit)
    French terrible doesn't mean 'terrible'; the adjective, in English, doesn't work like that. The adverb, though, does: something that is terrible (Fr) is terribly good. (I first became aware of this in a Johnny Halliday song; when I read the song's name on the sleeve [not having started to study French]...

    It was an EP (look it up if age <50) with a big hole where the gramophone spindle went (pretty niche, this detail – the French multi-disk towers must have been different from ours, so we had to get an adaptor [or trust to the eye to get the disk centred, with sometimes cacophonous, not to say damaging results). My bother had brought it home from an exchange visit; see here for more details of the Regnault-family-exchange-programme).

    ... I assumed that Elle est terrible had negative connotations. When I heard it, it obviously showed approval; the tune was that of one I'd already heard: She's Somethin' Else [I had no clear idea of what it meant exactly, but it was obviously approving].)
  • romanesque  (links to old post, but here's the relevant bit)
    This week's Book of the Week  on Radio 4 [HD 2021 – not THIS week, obv.] is a political biography that deals with Mitterand. In it, I caught' the phrase 'the romanesque side of Mitterand's nature' (his tendency to fantasize); and my translator's ears pricked up. I though[2121: sic] it was Sarkozy who had high arches... [Think about it.... Arches....] Mitterand wasn't anything to do with architectural history. I thought the book must have been a translation  whose translator had misunderstood roman-esque – 'like a story (un roman)'. 

But there are probably others. 
I just heard another case on BBC News coverage of the Grenfell enquiry. A representative of a French company that produced flammable cladding even with an interpreter (who surely knew better) – said he had arranged for the panels "to pass the test". On the face of it, this looks nefarious – if not criminal... Except  that in this context passer doesn't mean "pass". Passer un examen is just sitting it; in order to pass it you have to être reçu (or, in what I would guess is a small majority of cases, être reçue). (The behaviour of Arconic was in many cases atrocious, but this particular atrocity is imaginary.)
And a false friend that I've become aware of only recently... 
(I say "become aware of" not because  of my natural sesquipedaliophilia [don't bother looking that one up, it's hot off the presses, meaning "predilection for using long words"] but because I've met it several times when my choir has sung Elijah, and only now notice that it's a false friend)
</parenthesis> "quicken". And it's the sort of false friend that is easiest to overlook: the general meaning is right in some contexts, but it's behaviour changes in its precise grammatical context.

The question of whether and to what extent Mendelssohn's text for Elijah is a translation is not uncomplicated. I treated it at some (some would say obsessive) length here. In brief, a German libretto was started by Schübring, a friend of Mendelssohn's, years before the work's first performance ; but that  was an English version, and the "translator", Bartholomew, had sight of Schübring's incomplete version  not that he regarded it as "sacred" (or even competent; he was quite dismissive of it).

The verb "quicken" has a long history.. It was much used in the 18th century.. The word had been around since the 13th according to Etymonline, but in the sense of giving life (based on the sense of quick that we see in "the quick and the dead" (Biblical, before the punning film title), "quicksilver" (mercurial, not the metaphorical sense often attached to footballers, for some  reason), and "quicklime". 
This sort of "quick" is the basis for an aperçu that I've recently had about an anomaly I met in the school chemistry lab. Some elements have seemingly random symbols, like K and Sn  and Hg. As a schoolboy I was content to just learn them; some of them, anyway,  had mnemonic value – tin and Sn shared an n; and s is close to t both alphabetically and with regard to where the tongue goes in forming it. But Hg?
Well the alchemists (or whoever) who first named mercury chose a different metaphor for its fluid behaviour ; not alive-silver, but watery-silver, not quicksilver but hydrargyrum.
And this was the sort of "quicken" I used to think was used in Bartholomew's English text for Elijah a reasonable assumption, given the biblical associations of that sort of "quick".

Usually, the usage diagrams that Collins gives if you look hard enough (scrolling down three or four pages), doesn't pay attention to changes in meaning; so all the average navel-gazer can do is make suppositions about what changes in meaning were associated with what up-ticks or down-ticks happened. But conveniently, the Collins usage diagram showing the fortunes of "quicken" dates back only to the beginning of the eighteenth century; and as Etymonline says
Meaning "become faster" is from 1805. Related: Quickenedquickening. An earlier verb was simply quick (c. 1200), from Old English gecwician.

A drawback of these usage diagrams is that scale, units, and size of data-set, are all unspecified; but it's fairly clear from this chart that the "make faster" meaning diluted the usability of the word; having spent the eighteenth century flickering up and down quite wildly in the 2nd and 3rd strata (whatever they represent) for the next two centuries it languished (that's a word that may appeal to the Elijah cognoscenti) in the 1st.


Time I got to the point: Schübring's text in the chorus He watching over Israel is 

Wenn du mitten in Angst wandelt so erquickt er dich

(= something like "If you're walking in the midst of woes, he will speed you up")

Bartholomew, keen to use the new-fangled "quicken" to stand for the German erquickt didn't notice that our "quicken" doesn't work the same way. You quicken a heartbeat or a pulse or a pace, but not a person.  The nearest English comes to quickening a concrete noun is "quicken a heart" – but there "heart" is a metaphor (metonym?) for heartbeat. I mean to do some research* on that point, putting some numbers on my usage instincts, but this post is getting out of hand, so that's all for now.


Update: 2121.02.23.15:15 – Added footnote giving the promised  numbers.

* After a prolonged bout of DIY (which included a foray into Key Stage 4 Bitesize Physics on the subject of serial and parallel circuits) I've now spent some time in the British National Corpus justifying the breezy and unfounded claims I made last week about possible nouns used in collocation with quicken. If you want to see the BNC at work (fascinating but not appealing to all tastes) run this search. (it takes a while to get through everything, but if you just sit back and resist the temptation to keep prodding Return it gets there in the end). 

BNC search for quicken +NOUN


For the more faint-hearted I've  captured the most frequently used words – "most frequently" being a relative term, as only a single word (predictably, pace) occurs more than twice, and only seven others appear more than once (in a corpus that contains 100,000,000 words of text; these 27 cases are nearly half of the total [63]). The only one ...

(apart from the initially perplexing WINDOWS, which it turns out refers to Windows, specifically a software product called "Quicken for Windows")

 ... that seems at odds with what I wrote last week (broadly, "no concrete nouns") is feet; but that is a metaphor for foot-steps (just as heart is a metaphor for heart-rate as I wrote before).


Update: 2121.02.26.10:15 – Expanded on Bitesize coincidence.

A word or two about my rather gnomic reference to Bitesize and its relevance to the DIY task I was engaged in. This Key Stage 4 Physics case almost exactly describes my kitchen lights. There are three, and after my first few hours fiddling, I uttered a triumphant Fiat lux and flicked the switch; one of them shone brightly, and the other two only got half the requisite voltage. The answer (as eny fule know) was to wire them all in parallel circuits. Duh.

Excerpt from spookily relevant Bitesize lesson


Update: 2121.03.03.13:05 – DIY/KS4 update

As some Frenchman put it (Chateaubriand? Talleyrand?) Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien (often rendered as "Good enough is fine" or some such lame excuse for not doing things right [perhaps that word  gives a hint about a certain problem with my worldview]). I tinkered to make the job neater, and all  hell broke loose (where "hell" suggests the presence of Lucifer [the light-bearer]; whereas the absence of light  –  in two cases out of three  – was the problem).

Mr Montgomery (my old physics master) came to me in a dream; well, during a T'ai Chi session on Zoom to be precise. Cherchez l'homme, he said: V= IR (we were multilingual in my school  – a Latin man [VIR] was the mnemonic for Voltage = Current x Resistance.) My new/improved circuit included a length of flex with higher resistance, which reduced the current. The fix was trivial; but Chateaubriand seems increasingly attractive.:-)



  1. Erquicken is a case of a double false friend, because it means “to revitalize,” not “to make quick.”

  2. Thanks for the info. My "command" of German is more like a hesitant nudge ;-)