False friend

False friends (or faux amis) are pairs of words in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets) that look and/or sound similar, but differ in meaning.

False cognates, by contrast, are similar words in different languages that appear to have a common historical linguistic origin (regardless of meaning) but actually do not.


Both false friends and false cognates can cause difficulty for students learning a foreign language, particularly one that is related to their native language, because students are likely to misidentify the words due to linguistic interference. Because false friends are a common problem for language learners, teachers sometimes compile lists of false friends as an aid for their students.

One kind of false friend can occur when two speakers speak different varieties of the same language. Speakers of British English and American English sometimes have this problem, which was alluded to in George Bernard Shaw's statement "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." For example, in the UK, to "table" a motion means to place it on the agenda, while in the U.S. it means exactly the opposite—to remove it from consideration. See List of words having different meanings in British and American English.

Comedy sometimes includes puns on false friends, which are considered particularly amusing if one of the two words is obscene; when an obscene meaning is produced in these circumstances, it is called cacemphaton (κακεμφάτον), Greek for "ill-sounding".


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

  • Borrowing. If Language A borrowed a word from Language B, then in one language the word shifted in meaning or had more meanings added, a native speaker of one language will face a false friend when learning the other.

For example, the words preservative (English), préservatif (French), Präservativ (German), prezervativ (Romanian, Czech), preservativo (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese), prezerwatywa (Polish) and preservatiu (Catalan) are all derived from the Latin word præservativum. However, in all of these languages except English, the predominant meaning of the word is now condom.

Actual, which in English is usually a synonym of real, has a different meaning in English from that of other European languages, in which it means current or up-to-date and has the logical derivative as a verb to actualise, meaning to make current or to update. Actualise in English means "to make a reality of".

Demand in English and demande in French are representative of a particularly treacherous sort of false friend, in which – despite a common origin – the words not only have different, but almost precisely opposite meanings. In French, a demande is a request, not a forceful requirement.

  • Homonyms. In certain cases, false friends evolved separately in the different languages. Words usually change by small shifts in pronunciation accumulated over long periods and sometimes converge by chance on the same pronunciation or look despite having come from different roots.

For example, German Rat (pronounced with a long a) (= council) is cognate with English read and German Rede (= speech), while English rat for the rodent has its German cognate Ratte. In another example, the word bra in the Swedish language means good, as in the following sentence: "this is a good song." In English, bra is short for the French brassière, which is an undergarment that supports the breasts. The full English spelling, brassiere, is now a false friend in and of itself (the modern French term for brassiere is "soutien-gorge").

For example, Roman P came to be written like Greek rho (written "Ρ" but ), so the Roman letter equivalent to rho was modified to R to keep it distinct.

  • Pseudo-anglicisms. These are new words formed from English morphemes independently from an analogous English construct and with a different intended meaning.

For example, in German: Oldtimer refers to an old car (or antique aircraft) rather than an old person, while Handy refers to a mobile telephone.
Japanese is replete with pseudo-anglicisms, known as wasei-eigo ("Japan-made English"). A particularly complicated one is the word naitā which means night-time baseball game. It is derived from the American twi-nighter which is short for twi-night doubleheader, baseball slang meaning two games played by the same teams in a single day, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening, usually starting at twilight and continuing into the night. The Japanese naitā is strictly Japanese baseball slang, and is unknown to American baseball fans. In English, nitre (of very similar pronunciation) is a name for potassium nitrate.

  • Idioms. Some phrases commonly used in one culture and language may lose context when translated to another language, conveying a totally different meaning.

For example I'll call you back means that I will return your call, or make a later attempt to call you again. However, translating literally to Spanish would end up in something like te llamaré para atrás. Although this phrase has no meaning whatsoever in Spanish, it is used frequently in Puerto Rico, and can be confusing when heard by other Spanish-speakers. A more accurate translation would be te volveré a llamar (I'll call you again) or te devuelvo la llamada (I'll return your call).


The Parker Pen Company may have experienced a case of such confusion when they were trying to translate their slogan "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you" for the Latino market. As they mistakenly thought embarazar meant to embarrass, the Spanish slogan was proudly displayed across Latin communities as: "It won't leak in your pocket and impregnate you" (to embarrass in Spanish is "avergonzar").

Words like hot dog can become lost in translation, and especially since words carry different connotations in different areas; Richard Lederer, an author and professor of English, reports going to Germany and asking a vendor for a heißen Hund (a literal translation of "hot dog"). The vendor broke out laughing, for in German, heißer Hund suggests a dog in heat (Germans use the English term hot dog as a loan phrase).

Also, since English and German have the same etymological origins, there actually are a great number of words in both languages that are very similar and do have the same meaning (i.e. word/Wort, book/Buch, house/Haus, water/Wasser, ...). However, similar words with a different meaning are also quite common (e.g., bekommen means to get, that is, to come by, not to become, and is thus a false friend, which could lead a German English learner to utter an embarrassing sentence like: "I want to become a beefsteak."). This often causes some confusion for native speakers of one language learning the other language, and equally confusing (and sometimes amusing) for the listener who speaks the learnt language. Another example is the word gift, which in English means a "present" but in German and the Scandinavian languages means "poison", or, in the case of Swedish and Danish, also "married", depending on context.

An example in Spanish/English is red, with different pronunciation in both languages. This refers to the colour in English but means "net" in Spanish, and therefore gives rise to such phrases as red inalámbrica (wireless network). In addition, the word Sympathetic in English is very similar to the Spanish word simpático, meaning "nice" or "kind", while its correct translation is "empático".

The Latin root of concur has several meanings; to meet (in battle) and to meet (in agreement). In many European languages, words derived from this root take after the first meaning - English being a notable exception (i.e. French concurrent is a competitor in English).

"Some scorn Spanish-speakers who use English actually to mean ‘currently’ due to Spanish actualmente ‘currently’ (cf. Spanish realmente ‘actually’) or Italian-speakers who use English genial to mean ‘of genius’ due to Italian geniale ‘of genius’.

False friends resulting in a semantic change in the standard language

In bilingual situations, false friends often result in a real new meaning that is commonly used in a language. "For example, Portuguese humoroso ‘capricious’ changed its referent in American Portuguese to ‘humorous’ owing to the English surface-cognate humorous. American Yiddish kórņ ‘rye’ and American Norwegian korn ‘grain’ came to refer to ‘maize’ because of the cognate American English corn. American Italian fattoria lost its original meaning ‘farm’ in favour of ‘factory’ owing to the phonetically similar surface-cognate English factory (cf. Standard Italian fabbrica ‘factory’). Instead of the ‘original’ fattoria, the phonetic adaptation American Italian farma (Weinreich 1963: 49) became the new signifier for ‘farm’ – see ‘one-to-one correlation between signifiers and referents’. This phenomenon is analysed by Ghil'ad Zuckermann as "(incestuous) phono-semantic matching".

See also


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