You’ve probably heard of faux amis, literally “false friends” or “false cognates”, which are words that look the same in two languages but have different meanings. The word blocage which I talked about last week is an excellent example. Sometimes the meaning is totally different while in other cases, it’s quite subtle.
Take offrir and “offer”. Maybe you think they mean the same thing, but they are really not interchangeable at all.
We’re walking along, looking at the market stalls. I see something I like, but hesitate to buy it. Je te l’offre, says my husband. That means that he’s going to pay. We wouldn’t say in English “I’ll offer it to you”, but something more along the lines of “Why don’t I get it for you?” or “My treat”.
If I want to tell someone that my husband bought me a watch for my birthday, I’d say, Mon mari m’a offert une montre pour mon anniversaire rather than Mon mari m’a acheté une montre pour mon anniversaire which is perfectly correct but not nearly as elegant. Jean Michel would certainly not say it!
If I were to say, “my husband offered me a watch for my birthday”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what he ended up buying. What it really means is that he “offered to buy me a watch” and I could say yes or no.
In English, we talk about offering flowers and it’s the same in French : il m’a offert des fleurs.
We also offer someone a drink in English; in French we would say proposer à boire or offrir à boire when there is no danger of confusion. When there is a possibility of refusal, proposer is usually the appropriate term. Note the use of boire (to drink) for “a drink”. Even a toddler will say à boire if he’s thirsty or à manger if he’s hungry and not boisson or nourriture.
“Il m’a proposé deux vins différents” is quite different from “il m’a offert deux vins différents”. In the first case, he gave me a choice of two different wines while in the second case he gave them to me as a present.
“I offered to help him” = J’ai proposé de l’aider whereas Je lui ai proposé de l’aide could mean that I offered him financial help.
And here’s another time we say “offer” in English but not offrir in French. “I’ll raise the subject when a suitable occasion offers itself” = Je lui en parlerai lorsque l’occasion se présentera. And there’s that very annoying future tense that you have to use in French when we use the present in English. Remember the rule: when future is implied, future must be used and especially with quand and lorsque.
To offer one’s sympathy is faire/présenter/offrir ses condoléances. And while we’re on the subject, an American friend asked me recently what she should say to her neighbour whose wife had just died. The answer is very simple. You shake the person’s hand and simply say Toutes mes condoléances or Je vous/te présente toutes mes condoléances. In English, we would say “I’m very sorry about your wife”,”You and your family are in my thoughts”, “I am sorry for your loss” “You have my deepest sympathy” and so on.