Tag Archives: words in different languages

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. Continue reading Words And Reason: False Friends and Close Cousins