This question is related to this one and this other one, both regarding the same matter but from distinct points of view.

After reading the above posts I remained unsatisfied because of what I see as a restriction of the scope of the question.
So let me explain how I would like to expose it again.

First of all, it's clear that the English quid pro quo and the French quiproquo are mutually false friends: briefly summarized, the first one talks about actions (exchanging things, mutual behaviour, and so on) while the latter talks about situations (confusion between two persons).
This was widely commented in the posts I quoted, and it's ok.

But the precise question "What should be a good equivalent for the French quiproquo?" didn't get a real and complete answer.
In fact all posts have only took in account its sense of mistaken identity, but implicitly talkin about people only.

I agree this is the true primary sense, directly due to the litteral translation from latin: qui stands for a person (BTW here we can notice the logical consistency: quid stands for a thing, hence the different sense for the whole formula in English).
But here is the point: in today's current French, this first sense has been widened, so it now concerns not solely persons but also events or even things, in somewhat unclear limits.

Here are some examples:

  • primary sense, about persons

    -On m'a dit de m'adresser à Mr Dupont. C'est bien vous ?
    -Oui mais Dupond avec un "D" : je pense que vous voulez parler à l'autre Mr Dupont, avec un "T".
    -Excusez-moi, c'est un quiproquo.

  • about events

    -On ne t'a pas vu à la réunion hier.
    -On m'avait dit que c'était demain : il y a eu un quiproquo !

  • about things

    -J'ai allumé le chauffe-eau mais il n'y a pas d'eau chaude à la douche ! Il y en a pourtant au lavabo.
    -Il y a un chauffe-eau séparé pour la douche.
    -Ah ! Si on m'avait prévenu il n'y aurait pas eu ce quiproquo.

As you can see, in French quiproquo is essentially matter of ambiguity leading to a mistake, whatever it concerns.
NOTE: French readers might criticize my comment, noting that the expansion of the concept of the person to "everything and anything" is at fault. True, but it is equally true that it is the current use!

So, again the question: is there an English equivalent which would cover this entire scope?

  • 3
    In English these are often referred to as "mix-ups" - If they'd told me up front we wouldn't have had this mix-up. Or we wouldn't have gotten our wires crossed - the latter used mainly in the context of errors communicating information. – Jim May 3 '15 at 18:05
  • 2
    So for your first example I'd probably just say, "Oh, excuse me... silly mistake, it could happen to anyone." For the second: "They told me it was tomorrow- I guess we got our wires crossed" For the third: "If you'd told me upfront we wouldn't have had this mix-up/misunderstanding" – Jim May 3 '15 at 18:11
  • Can you actually translate the French? It means nothing to me, so I have no idea how it's being used. – Catija May 3 '15 at 22:57
  • @Catija Google translate actually does a passable job.For example, in the first passage someone is asking for Mr Dupond, but really wanted Mr Dupont. Google translates this as a misunderstanding, although I'm not sure that captures every nuance. – ColleenV May 4 '15 at 3:42

I think the Google translation of quiproquo into misunderstanding may be the best choice.

For example, If our phone connection is poor and I didn't hear what you said correctly, that can lead to a misunderstanding. If someone told me the time of a meeting in UTC, and I assumed it was in a different time zone and missed the meeting, that would also be a misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding can be about anything (person, event, thing), but all the cases that I can think of involve someone not interpreting information about a situation clearly. The problems with interpretation can be caused by obvious reasons, like noise over a phone connection, or by less obvious reasons, like different understandings of a word or phrase.

Mistake is somewhat related, but usually if I make a mistake, it is a wrong action or judgment that is my own responsibility. A misunderstanding has less responsibility or blame. For example, "Because I misunderstood what the professor said in class, I made a mistake and didn't format my paper correctly." The misunderstanding isn't exactly my fault or the professor's fault even though it caused me to make a mistake.

In the sense of bringing comic relief to a stage play, the only term I can think of is "comedy of errors". While the literal definition refers to a play or other narrative work, it can be used figuratively to describe a situation. Usually "comedy of errors" refers to many misunderstandings though, not just one, and often to a chain of errors, where one misunderstanding causes another which causes another.

  • Thanks to this response which really analyzes the question, I just realized the important thing: there is no English equivalent to quiproquo, because it appears as a "fantasy" of how French language evolved. Misunderstanding is a good translation for incompréhension, and in French we could frequently use it... but we don't, although it is the right word for what we want to say. We only use it in rather "serious" or technical text or speech, but almost never in the current life. Don't know why, but sure we "automatically" prefer quiproquo. So i got the true answer to my question. – cFreed May 5 '15 at 16:56
  • @cFreed I'm glad it was helpful because the question was helpful to me. Too often the translations miss nuances and I am unaware that I might have missed something important. Now I know of another word to read carefully in French. – ColleenV May 5 '15 at 17:30

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