‘False Friends Faux Amis’ by Ellie Malet Spradbery

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Monday, January 17, 2011 - Save & Share - 4 Comments

Language is something that I find absolutely fascinating: I love reading about how different languages developed, their particular foibles, the origins of words and the meanings of obscure idioms.  I was therefore ever so pleased to be sent a free copy of False Friends Faux Amis by Ellie Malet Spradbery to review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.  I’ve studied a reasonable about of French, both modern and medieval, so I thought that my knowledge was probably sufficient to appreciate such a book and French and English share such a lot of vocabulary that an exploration of faux amis sounded like an interesting concept.  The blurb promised ‘A light-hearted exploration of the French language and culture, and, in particular, words and phrases that could trip up the unwary linguist’.  Having read books on the English language which sounded similar, how could I possibly resist.

Unfortunately, this book turned out to be a huge disappointment.  The description ‘exploration’ implied, as far as I was concerned, that there would be some sort of discussion of the French language and those unusual words and phrases which an English speaker might find confusing, perhaps explaining where the differences arise and what their roots are in an accessible fashion.  However, with the exception of an ‘And Finally’ section so brief you could swallow it whole without needing a glass of water, the aforementioned blurb constitutes the only complete sentences in the entire book.  To my surprise, the book consists entirely of vocabulary lists and, while these can be interesting up to a point, a list can only be so engaging.  The definitions felt brief and lacking in context or information and there isn’t even an introduction stating what the author is trying to do in the book, it just launches straight in with the lists.  ‘A light-hearted exploration of the French language’ it most definitely is not.

The lists are divided into six sections.  The first deals with the faux amis of the title, taking words which are either common to both languages or are aurally or visually similar and providing French-English and English-French translations for them.  The second section was the one that I found the most interesting, dealing with translations of French idioms, but was also the chapter where I felt humorous explanatory prose was the most lacking.  I would have really enjoyed the author’s conjectures as to why the English say ‘whipping boy’ while the French say ‘tete de Turc’ and why the French for ‘to faint’ would literally translate as ‘to fall in apples’.  It’s a shame that this opportunity wasn’t taken.  Section three tackles French words which look very similar but have totally different meanings, such as ‘le loup’ (wolf) and ‘la loupe’ (magnifying glass).  Section four contains thematic vocabulary lists, such as tree and animal names, which is all well and good but seems very odd considering the aim of the book, which is supposedly to clear up linguistic misunderstandings, not teach the reader how to say ‘hedgehog’ (that would be ‘herisson’, by the way) and other woodland creatures in French.  The fifth part is helpfully entitled ‘Miscellaneous’ and is the most bizarre collection of words and phrases, ranging from a few articles of clothing to how to ask for the bill, completely unrelated either to one another or to faux amis.  I’m at a loss as to why they were included at all.  The sixth and final chapter is back on track as the author translates common English phrases into French by sense rather than literally.  The problem with this is that I could never use this as a reference book: if I came across a word of which I thought I knew the meaning but it didn’t seem to fit, I would look it up in the dictionary, not go to this book on the off chance that it’s one of the words and phrases listed in its 87 pages.  If I needed to translate an idiomatic phrase, my first resort would, again, be the dictionary, or another source with a more academic tone and fewer exclamation marks.  When she tries to make vocabulary sound fun and accessible, Spradbery stops sounding reliable, which is an unfortunate flaw.

False Friends Faux Amis has a really good concept, but it is sadly let down by execution.  The lack of an effective system of organisation and the informality of style make it largely unhelpful, but the lists unbroken by any prose make it largely uninteresting.  This book suffers because it can’t decide whether to be an entertaining curiosity or a useful reference tool and in trying to combine the two achieves neither aim.

False Friends Faux Amis by Ellie Malet Spradbery.  Published by Matador, 2010, pp. 87.

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4 Responses to “‘False Friends Faux Amis’ by Ellie Malet Spradbery”

Comment from Annie
Time January 17, 2011 at 5:15 pm

What a disappointment. I suppose this is always a risk when you opt for something sight unseen but nevertheless you do expect publishers to offer a fairly accurate description of the book. After all, if they mis-sell too often they’re going to get a reputation for it.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 19, 2011 at 3:27 pm

It was very disappointing. I rather hope that someone out there takes it upon themselves to write the book that I expected to read, as I think it would be really quite interesting.

Comment from Elizabeth Spradbery
Time February 4, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Thank you for the wonderful review. You obviously appreciate huge and unsubtle. The ‘Final Thought’, although only a few lines, is actually designed to cheer you up: ‘On doit faire attention a ce qu’on veut; ca peut bel et bien arriver’. If your French is as good as you claim, you will get the message. I have had some excellent reviews (mostly English ones through librarything.com) so I suppose it is Sod’s law that yours is the one posted on my site; could it merely be because you have expended energy on several hundred words? A friend will be helping me soon to set up my own website so that the good reviews will be posted up – I hope in time to give people a fairer idea of Book Two which is due out soon.
Elizabeth M Spradbery

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time February 11, 2011 at 11:36 am

I’m sorry that you didn’t appreciate my review, but I will always review everything I read and I stand by my concerns. It’s great that other people enjoyed your book and I wish you well with it and the second installment; there are all types of readers who will appreciate a wide variety of books. The fact that yours wasn’t for me really shouldn’t be a matter for concern for you as, as you say, you’ve had plenty of positive responses. I am confused by your comment about my review being posted on your site though: clearly I have no control over the content of a site that doesn’t belong to me.

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