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On being mistaken

Teaching my students about reflexive verbs has made me pensive about the nature of actions and reactions in a language, the understanding of bearing out, either as in creating or carrying. The reflexive verbs of French mean that we tend to do things to ourselves that Anglophones “get” done to them. This is all easily conceivable for the litany of verbs around the body and its processes and preparations – se lever (to rise, to raise oneself), se laver (to wash oneself), se préparer (to prepare oneself, to get ready)... Although not reflexive in English, they’re entirely logical as such. But vocabulary around affect requires a bit more of a stretch of the imagination. So, we don’t “get mad,” we “anger ourselves.” We “bore ourselves” and “amuse ourselves.”

Most noteworthy to me in my particular aversion to imperfection, when we make a mistake, on se trompe: we “cheat” or “betray” ourselves. English error is related predominantly to getting off course: erring, stumbling, slipping. The path is [momentarily] lost. Synonyms of “se tromper” include: s’illusioner (to deceive oneself), avoir tort (to have wrong/fault). We expose flaws and ills in our mistakes. We own failure – we did it to ourselves. We make faults, rather than mistakes.

To a certain extent, I’m picking through the data here. Other possibilities do include: se méprendre (quite literally to “mis-take oneself”) (1), faire fausse route (to take the wrong path – so we can wander lost in our mistakes!), errer (where do you think you get your erring from?)... In English one can “ be at fault,” but this strikes me as more extreme or infrequent than “faire une faute.” Anglophones are at fault in an argument; Francophones make faults in emails and recipes. (The former is often better translated as avoir tort, in fact.)

But if direct – or quasi-direct – reflections between French and English verbs or phrases are certainly possible to find, the most common versions in each language, the basic templates of mistake-making, are tellingly different, opening onto different worlds of associations and shades.

A French mistake seems more dire, more stupid – another word being bêtise, or “inanity,” also used to describe the naughtiness [of children]. French people correct one another constantly, and we do it with mild mockery, since teasing is so ingrained in our culture, as well. We do it directly, uncouched in positives and optimistic critique. We do it quickly, and we don’t mind interrupting. It’s one of our favorite love languages.

There’s a certain reverence for the mistake and failing in American culture, as springboards for progress. This positive PR campaign never got passed to me. There was a highly codified system when I was in grade school: We were to write in black or blue ink. The teacher would then make corrections in red ink, and we were to return the corrected copy with our additions in green. A clean delineation of affairs, a record kept of what had gone wrong. There was no hiding behind an eraser, as pencils were often discouraged or outlawed. Perhaps they would make us too impetuous and unconsidered.

My homeland creates plenty of unabashed cons (2), so there’s a limit to the linguistic-cultural-psychological trifecta’s power to shape our neuroses. I must assume, too, that aside from considerations of family dynamics, genetics and gender, my own allergy to mistakes is shaped by my bilingualism and bicoastalism. I’ve been hiding the fissures in my learning and even my imperfect personality type – never American, never perfectly French – from the beginning. I adapt, hide and consider lest I give myself away. In that, I join the multitudinous ranks of people who protect themselves with timidity to avoid betraying themselves (3).


  1. Se méprendre gives us mépris, “contempt” or “loathing,” and an interesting parallel between hatred/hate and the misunderstood. The hater is the one at fault, mistaking the hated object. There is some parallel, too, in getting along: s’entendre [bien], to “hear one another [well].” There’s an understandable line between communication, properly taken in, and relation.

  2. Idiot, twat, asshole, putz, jerk... always a frustrating word to translate, and one which yields sundry glorious expressions. Related to “cunt,” an early primary meaning.

  3. And I’m a white person from an “unexotic” European country beloved by numerous Americans! It’s evident that the protection and stress of code switching is often a much more literal matter of life and death.

(This is a copy of an essay I've published on my substack: subscribe to receive my pieces directly in your inbox.)

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