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").
* Different alphabets or homoglyphs. :: For example, Roman "P" came to be written like Greek rho (written "Ρ" but pronounced|r), 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"). [Sandy Serva, [http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/ArticleReader.aspx?ArticleID=1038 iLanguage: Translations for Global Research] , Jan 2003, Vol. 26, Issue 1, p 51.]

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.") [Geoff Parkes, Alan Cornell, 1992, "NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates", National Textbook Company, NTC Publishing Group] . 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’." [See pp. 102-103 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, [http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?is=140391723X ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’] , Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.]

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’." [See p. 102 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, [http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?is=140391723X ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’] , Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.] This phenomenon is analysed by Ghil'ad Zuckermann as "(incestuous) phono-semantic matching".

ee also

* Folk etymology
* List of words having different meanings in British and American English
* Phono-semantic matching


External links

* [http://www.lipczuk.buncic.de/ An online hypertext bibliography on false friends]
* [http://german.about.com/library/weekly/aa030199.htm German/English false friends]
* [http://spanish.about.com/library/weekly/aa101899.htm Spanish/English false friends]
* [http://french.about.com/library/fauxamis/blfauxam_a.htm French/English false friends]
* [http://membres.lycos.fr/jeuxdelettres/ Liste de faux amis et anglicismes]
* [http://home.att.net/~keiichiro/janglish/list.html Japanese/English false friends]
* [http://www.btk.elte.hu/delg/people/core/lazar/falsefriends.html Hungarian/English false friends]
* [http://www.englisch-hilfen.de/en/words/false_friends.htm List of German/English false friends]
* [http://www.danieleocchipinti.it/false-friends.html List of Italian/English false friends]
* [http://mgolobic.tripod.com/eng/ffang.htm List of Slovene/English false friends]
* [http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/cultural-services/articles/crosscultural-marketing.html Where among others the various slogans (including English/German false friend "Mist") is discussed]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • false friend — n 1.) a word in a foreign language that is similar to one in your own, so that you wrongly think they both mean the same thing 2.) someone who seems to be your friend but is not …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • false friend — noun A term in a foreign language that does not mean what it appears to, eg in Italian, pretendere does not mean ‘to pretend’ • • • Main Entry: ↑false …   Useful english dictionary

  • false friend — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms false friend : singular false friend plural false friends linguistics a word in a language that looks or sounds similar to a word in another language but means something different. For example actual in English …   English dictionary

  • False friend — Falsche Freunde gehören zu den Übersetzungsschwierigkeiten und Interferenzfehlern. Im Englischen werden sie als „false friends bezeichnet, im Französischen sind sie unter dem Namen „faux amis“ bekannt. Inhaltsverzeichnis 1 Etymologie 2 Bekannte… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • false friend — two words in different languages that appear to be the same but have very different meanings; an unfaithful friend …   English contemporary dictionary

  • false friend — noun /ˌfɒls ˈfrɛnd,ˌfɔːls ˈfrɛnd,ˌfɑːls ˈfrɛnd/ A word in a foreign language bearing a deceptive resemblance to a word in ones own language …   Wiktionary

  • false friend — noun a word or expression having a similar form to one in a person s native language, but a different meaning (e.g. English magazine and French magasin ‘shop’) …   English new terms dictionary

  • partial false friend — noun ˈpɑː(ɹ).ʃəl fɔls fɹɛnd A word in a foreign language bearing a deceptive resemblance to a word in ones own language, and at least one meaning in common, but not all …   Wiktionary

  • False — False, a. [Compar. {Falser}; superl. {Falsest}.] [L. falsus, p. p. of fallere to deceive; cf. OF. faus, fals, F. faux, and AS. fals fraud. See {Fail}, {Fall}.] 1. Uttering falsehood; unveracious; given to deceit; dishnest; as, a false witness.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • False arch — False False, a. [Compar. {Falser}; superl. {Falsest}.] [L. falsus, p. p. of fallere to deceive; cf. OF. faus, fals, F. faux, and AS. fals fraud. See {Fail}, {Fall}.] 1. Uttering falsehood; unveracious; given to deceit; dishnest; as, a false… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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