Freud was right the first time: Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar


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
after (German) after anus
bald (German) bald soon
bras (French) bras arm
constipado (Spanish) constipated a cold
embarazada (Spanish) embarrassed pregnant
fahrt (German)fart (Swedish) fart speed
fat (Swedish) fat dinner plate
gift (Swedish) gift married
killa (Swedish) kill tickle
limo (German) limo lemonade
mama (Georgian) mama father
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.