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French-English false friends: dossier



It seems reasonable to assume that, as a French loan word, dossier would mean the same thing in both languages – all the more so when, like bouquet or rendez-vous, its final consonant is unvoiced (dos-ee-ey), à la française. In fact, however, French and English usages differ in subtle but important ways.

    In French, the word describes any bundle of documents with a label on the spine (dos means "back"), what we call a file or folder in English:


  • Les factures sont dans le dossier bleu. // Invoices are in the blue folder.

  • Le dossier que tu cherches est sur mon bureau. // The file you're looking for is on my desk.


     By extension, dossier is often used metonymically to refer to the issue addressed, or the work entailed, by each of the folders piled up on your desk:


  • Le ministre des finances est intervenu sur le dossier important de la réforme fiscale. // The finance minister addressed the important issue of tax reform.

  • La justice a été saisie du dossier. // The matter is before the courts.

  • Chaque assistant social gère environ 120 dossiers. // Each social worker handles around 120 cases.

  • Je suis restée tard au bureau pour traiter un dossier urgent. // I stayed at work late to deal with an urgent job.


     In English, a dossier is a specific kind of file containing detailed information about a person or topic, generally gathered in the course of an investigation. We learned recently that "Russian spies put together compromising dossiers on both Clinton and Trump" (The Guardian, 11/01/2017). As this example suggests, a dossier is more likely than a prosaic file to contain information of a secret or unflattering nature. I can only guess that the loan-word is preferred when the writer wishes to convey that the contents are out of the ordinary – more bouquet than bunch, more romantic rendez-vous than dull meeting.


     Here are a few more common French idioms with dossier and suggested translations:


  • Dossier médical = Medical record

  • Dossier de presse = Press kit

  • Dossier de candidature = Application

  • Dossier des présences = Attendance record

  • Admission sur dossier = Selective admission










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Viviane Lowe

traduction + communication