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False friend

False friends are pairs of words in two languages that look or sound similar but differ in meaning. Such words can cause difficulty for students learning a foreign language because the students are likely to misidentify the words based on knowledge of their native language. Comedy sometimes includes puns on false friends, which are considered particularly amusing if one of the two words is obscene.

From the etymological point of view, false friends can be created in several ways:

  • Cognates:
    • If Language A borrowed a word from Language B, then in Language B the word shifted in meaning, a native speaker of language A will face a false friend when learning language B.
  • False cognates:
    • In certain cases, false friends were created separately in the two languages
    • some false friends are simply homonyms with no relation between them whatsoever. They happened due to sheer coincidence.
      • e.g., the Latin is, the Chinese you, and the German Rat.
  • Pseudo-anglicisms:
    • Pseudo-angliscisms are artificially-created constructions of words with elements borrowed from English but the morphemes of which do not actually exist in English.
      • e.g., German: "Twen" for anyone in their "twenties" or the age itself, or "fesch" for smart, natty, chic, attractive or dashing which originated in the English "fashionable".

Examples of false friends between English and other languages
Non-English word Which resembles English But actually means
accuser (French) accuse acknowledge (accuser réception = acknowledge receipt), although it can also mean "accuse" in other cases
actuel (French) and its cognates.
actual (Spanish) and
aktuell (German)
actual current
also (German) also thus
ask (Swedish) ask small box; ash (tree)
attendre (French) attend to wait for; to expect
bald (German) bald soon
beg (Manx) big little
bekommen (German) become obtain, get (compare English "come by")
beraten (German) berate give advice, discuss
Billion (German)
bilione (Italian
biljon (Swedish)
billion trillion (1012 or million millions. The English billion is in fact a false friend in German, Italian and Swedish and means "Milliarde" (109 or thousand millions)
block (Swedish)
Block (German)
block note pad
bond (French) bond leap, bound
brav (German) brave well-behaved
canto (Latin) canto I sing
casino (Italian) casino brothel
compromiso (Spanish) compromise promise
culte (French) cult worship (as in lieu de culte = house of worship)
demander (French) to demand to ask or request
die (German) (to) die the (female and plural too; example: the wife (die Ehefrau), the houses (die Häuser))
Dag (Hebrew) dog fish
Dom (German) dome cathedral
Douche (German) douche shower
egg (Swedish) egg edge of a cutting tool, such as knife edge
ego (Latin) ego I
engagerad (Swedish) engaged considered or involved in something
embarazada (Spanish) embarrassed pregnant
eventuell (German and Swedish) eventually maybe, perhaps
Fabrik (German)
fabrik (Swedish)
fabric factory
fack (Swedish) fuck trade union; branch; compartment
Fakt (German) fucked fact
Fahrt (German) fart journey; speed; trip, excursion, voyage
fart (Swedish) fart speed
fast (German) fast nearly, almost
fast (Swedish) fast firm, steady (compare "steadfast")
fat (發) (Cantonese) fat prosperity
flint (Swedish) flint bald head
foresto (Esperanto) forest absence
fort (French) fort strong
Futt (German) foot vulgar slang for vagina
Gift (German and Swedish) gift[?] poison
glass (Swedish) glass icecream
Glut (German) glut heat; glow; embers
greippi (Finnish) grape grapefruit
gren (Swedish) green branch
groin (French) groin snout
Gymnasium (German and Swedish) gym(nasium) high(er) school, grammar school
Handy (German) handy mobile phone, cell phone ("Handy" is not really German, it is artificial (pseudo-English) from English and German "hand", but most Germans think that the word is English). It's a Pseudo-anglicism.
he (היא) (Hebrew) he she
Hose (German) hose (pair of) trousers/pants
i (Latin) I go! (imperative)
is (Norwegian) is icecream
is (Latin) is you go
is (Swedish) is ice
it (Latin) it he/she/it goes
Kant cunt name of a famous German philosopher
Kaution (German) caution deposit, bail
Kind (German) kind child
Kinn (German) kin chin
kontrollieren (German)
kontroll (Swedish)
control check, examine
korn (Swedish) corn barley
List (German) list cunning; artfulness; ruse
main (French) main hand
mama (Georgian) mother father
me (麼) (Mandarin) me interrogative marker
merci (French) mercy[?] thank you
Mode (German) mode fashion, haute couture[?]
molestar (Spanish) molest bother, annoy
Mörder (German) murder murderer
once (Spanish) once eleven
or (French) or gold
ours (French) ours a bear
pathétique (French) pathetic emotional
pétulant (French) petulant playful
préservatif (French) (1) preservative condom
Prospekt (German) prospect brochure, leaflet
prospekt (Russian) prospect avenue
Rat (German) rat advice; council; councilor (U.S), councillor (Br.)
rester (French) (to) rest to stay; to remain
saikou (Japanese) psycho the best
sale (French) sale dirty
salivit (Latin) salivate he/she/it jumped
Sekt (German) sect champagne, sparkling wine
sensibel (German)
sensible (French)
sensible sensitive
she (舌) (Mandarin) she tongue
Smoking (German and Swedish) smoking dinner jacket (Br.), tuxedo (US.); but not smoking jacket
stark (German and Swedish) stark strong
strafen (German strafe punish
sum (Latin) sum I am
sympathisch (German)
sympatisk (Swedish)
sympathetic likeable, friendly
teknologi (Swedish) technology technology as a discipline
t'oi (台) (Hakka) toy tower
Unterstand (German) understand shelter; dugout; bunker
wanken (German) wank to sway
will (German)
vill (Swedish)
will want
winken (German) wink to wave
vrist (Swedish) wrist ankle
you (有) (Mandarin) you to have

  1. The words Präservativ (German), prezerwatywa (Polish) are derived from the French préservatif (which means both "preservative" and "condom") and all false friends of the word name. This is an example of how in one language, a word can acquire an additional meaning which is not shared by other languages.

Since false friends are common problem for language learners, teachers sometimes compile lists of false friends as an aid for their students.

Even compilers of bilingual dictionaries are sometimes fooled by false friends, particularly when they are cognates. For example, the Spanish desgracia can on rare occasions mean "disgrace", but it usually means "misfortune". The best defense for the language student is to use a monolingual dictionary in the target language as a final authority.

See also Pseudo-Anglicism

External Links

The phrase "false friend" also means simply someone who appears to be a friend, but is actually an enemy.

The phrase "false friend" is an old phrase. It is found in William Shakespeare's Richard III, act III scene i. In it, Richard III tells Prince Edward:

 Those uncles which you want were dangerous;
 Your grace attended to their sugar'd words,
 But look'd not on the poison of their hearts :
 God keep you from them, and from such false friends!
To which Prince Edward replies:
 God keep me from false friends! but they were none.

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