False Friends

The United States and France are both electing new presidents. Aside from the coincidence of calendars and the similarity of terms, is a president in France the equivalent of a president in the United States? The answer is not obvious, as words do not necessarily have the same meaning in both countries.

We are familiar with the faux amis (false friends) found in the dictionary: actuellement does not mean “actually” but rather “currently”. Éventuellement does not mean “eventually” but instead “finally”. Supporter does not mean “to support” but instead “to put up with”. More treacherous still are words that are equivalent but that do not refer to the same content or the same social or historical experience. Démocratie, for example, indeed translates as “democracy”, but does it have the same meaning on both sides of the Atlantic? When Tocqueville described democracy in America, he focused above all on the egalitarian manners and morals of this nation in contrast with France’s aristocratic habits. What was and still is democratic in the United States is above all


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