Words And Reason: False Friends and Close Cousins

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

The French have an expression—fauxes amis, or false friends—that refers to words in different languages or dialects that look similar but have different meanings. For example, the French word blesser might look like it is related to the English bless, but in fact, blesser means “to wound.”

Even within English, however, there are words that act like false friends. This often occurs because English has words from so many languages, but it also often happens because words can have more than one meaning. They are distantly related, so they behave like false friends, even though they are more like cousins.

The outcome of this is that people sometimes use a word that means something quite different from what they intended simply because it sounds like a word that does reflect the intended meaning.

One example is enormity. This word has begun to crop up with increasing frequency in places where the desired meaning is largeness or scope, because it sounds a lot like enormous. One might read about some executive where the “enormity of his job” is being described. Oops. Actually, enormity means “great wickedness; an outrageous or immoral act; monstrous.” It is appropriately used when describing a crime or bad behavior: “The public was shocked by the enormity of the crime.” That said, it can also be used to describe something that is really terrible. In Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck wrote of a family waking in the forest and remembering that their house and everything they owned had just burned to the ground: “…the enormity of their situation burst upon them. ‘How did the fire start?’ asked Pablo.”

The original Latin word from which both enormity and enormous come to us—enormis— means “out of the norm,” or “out of rule.” As languages developed from Latin, they often picked up differences in interpretation. The French énormité, from which we get enormity, meant “atrocity, heinous sin.” Definitely “out of the norm.” As English evolved words from Latin, it picked up on the idea of being huge and vast, and in the 1530s, “enormous” emerged as being stuff that was outside the norm by way of size.

All that said, enormity can be used to mean excessively large, though it should only be used when something is freakishly or stunningly large—outside the norm. However, because it is primarily associated with that which is bad, it is advisable to avoid using it unless you’re describing something unpleasant. There are lots of other words that will get the idea across without having people wonder if you know the word’s meaning.” Of course, if you’re writing a murder mystery, you can use it and people who know will smile at your erudition.

Next up: how many of you know the difference between uninterested and disinterested? If you know, then you are among the few. For the others: uninterested means you don’t care; disinterested means you don’t have a vested interest in something or don’t gain any benefit from the outcome. An umpire cannot be uninterested in a game but must be disinterested. Here, the issue is a multiple meaning word: to be drawn to vs. gaining a benefit from.

While editing a language acquisition program for an educational publisher, the word confusion that drove me craziest involved the words port, export, and import. No matter what notes I sent out or what warnings I gave, I kept getting instructional material that connected these words: “it’s called an export because it comes out of a port” sort of thing. In this case, we’re not dealing with multiple-meaning words; the various ports here are completely unrelated.

The port that we find in port, seaport, or airport comes from the Latin portus, which means “port, harbor, entrance, door.” The port in export and import comes from the Latin portare, which means “to carry.” This is where we get words like porter and portable. It’s also the port in transport, which means “to carry across.” Of course, this usage only affects your writing if you’re writing instructional material of some sort (though that happens often enough to warrant sharing this). You can use export without knowing that it’s linguistically unrelated to seaport. But it is a perfect example of the kind of false friend that can potentially get writers into trouble. The point here is that, if you are going to say something about language, make sure you look it up before you comment on the meaning or relationship of a word.

These are just a few examples of words that seem similar but aren’t. I guess the best advice is, while it’s nice to look up everything when you have the time, it becomes vital when you’re going to write things down.

Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com .