Lesson: The dangers of false friends when learning a language
The next time you visit Germany, don’t say danke schön when you receive a gift. In German, “gift” means “poison.” And when in Italy, beware of signs reading “casino,” unless, of course, you are looking to go to a brothel.
“Gift” and “casino” are two examples of “false friends.” False friends are words that look the same or similar to words in another language, but have different meanings. They can be a roadblock to language learners, who may wrongly attribute a familiar definition to the new word (sometimes with accidental comedic effect).
Two kinds of false friends are “cognates” and “false cognates.”
Cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. Or, said another way, they share a parent on the language family tree. For example: night (English), nuit (French), nacht (German), and notte (Italian) were all derived from the same Proto-Indo-European word. Cognates become false friends if Language A borrows a word from Language B, but over time, Language B changes the word’s meaning.
False cognates are words that look similar, but actually formed from two separate languages. In these cases, it’s just coincidence that one word looks like another.
Here are some funny examples of false friends with English words:
|Foreign word||English word||Foreign word definition|
|constipado (Spanish)||constipated||a cold|
|fahrt (German)fart (Swedish)||fart||speed|
|fat (Swedish)||fat||dinner plate|
|smoking (French, German, Spanish, Swedish)||smoking||tuxedo jacket|
False friends are one of languages’ lovable (and sometimes irritating) eccentricities. Be sure to keep note of the embarrassing ones in your learning adventures, or else you may be deeply disappointed when a suave gentleman comes to your door with a glass of lemonade instead of a limo.
If you are interested in a longer list of false friends, click here.
2 thoughts on “Freud was right the first time: Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar”
Sometimes you can get false friends within the same language. Your example of Spanish embarazada reminds me of a time many years ago when a British fellow student who didn’t have an alarm clock asked me (an American) if I could come around and knock her up at a certain time the next morning.
I’m actually planning a separate post about Britishisms. I have a couple funny stories, myself. Thanks for sharing yours.