Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie. Une traduction en français sera publiée prochainement.
A false friend, in a literal sense, is someone whom you have regarded as a friend but who has betrayed you or let you down. In a figurative sense, and in a linguistic context, a false friend is “a word or expression in one language that, because it resembles one in another language, is often wrongly taken to have the same meaning” (Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged). An example of a false friend is the English word ‘agenda’, which means a list or program of things to be done or considered (1) . This is not the same as the French word agenda, which would be translated into English as ‘diary’.
A semi-false friend is a word which sometimes but not always has the same meaning as the equivalent cognate in a different language. Thus, for example, the French word abandon is usually not translated into English as ‘abandon’ but, depending on the context, as ‘abandonment’, ‘neglect’ or ‘desertion’, as in abandon du domicile (spousal desertion) or jardin à l’abandon (neglected garden). There are cases, however, where abandon would be correctly translated as ‘abandon’, for example, dans ses moments d’abandon (in his moments of abandon).
Notorious and notoire are semi-false friends. The English word always has a negative connotation, as in the following sentences: ‘He is a notorious liar’. ‘Al Capone was a notorious criminal’. In French, the word notoire sometimes has a negative connotation and in those cases notoire would be synonymous with mal famé(e); but in other cases, it might be a synonym for célèbre, with no negative undertone. For example: De son temps, Paul Bourget était un écrivain notoire.
Les faux amis en anglais de Anne-Marie Pateau et William B. Barrie (Libraire Générale Française)
Vrais et faux amis en anglais de Michel Marcheteau et Lionel Dahan (Pocket Langues pour tous)
French False Friends de CWE Kirk-Greene (Routledge & Kegan Paul)
Dictionnaire des difficultés de la langue française de A.V. Thomas (Larousse)
Le bon mot - déjouer les pièges du français de Jacques Laurin (Les éditions de l'homme.)
(1) ‘Agenda’ can be the plural form of ‘agendum’, but in most cases it is used in English as a single noun – see http://www.thefreedictionary.com/agenda. The word has also acquired the meaning of a plan intended to advance a goal. In this sense. It often has a negative connotation, particularly in the phrase “hidden agenda.”