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False friends (or faux amis) are pairs of words in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets) that look 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 (whatever their current meaning) but actually do not.

As language evolves, meanings change, and words from the past become false friends although in the same language. There are many examples in Shakespeare[1].



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 identify the words wrongly due to linguistic interference. As 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".[2]

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 (κακέμφατον), Greek for "ill-sounding".

As well as complete false friends, use of loanwords often results in the use of a word in a restricted context, which may then develop new meanings not found in the original language.


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, Croatian), preservativo (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese), prezerwatywa (Polish), презерватив "prezervativ" (Russian) 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 other European languages, in which it means "current" or "up-to-date" (aktuell in German, "actueel" in Dutch, actuel in French, actual in Spanish and European Portuguese and atual in Brazilian Portuguese, aktualny in Polish) and has the logical derivative as a verb aktualisieren (German), actualiser (French), actualizar (Spanish and European Portuguese), "atualizar" (Brazilian Portuguese) and aktualizacja (Polish) meaning "to make current" or "to update". "Actualise" (or "Actualize") in English means "to make a reality of".[3]
Demand in English and demande in French or domanda in Italian are representative of a particularly treacherous sort of false friend, in which – despite a common origin – the words have differently shaded meanings. The French and Italian homologues simply mean "request", not a forceful requirement. This led to several historic misunderstandings, such as in Canada, the failing of the Meech Lake Accord where Quebec constitutional requests were interpreted as demands.[citation needed]
Magazine in English and магазин (magazin) in Russian (from the French word magasin of the same meaning) mean "publication" and "shop/store", respectively. In Polish (in addition to "publication" and "shop/store", the last meaning now being archaic), in Italian magazzino and Dutch magazijn also means "warehouse" (originating from a depot on the back of a shop).
Gift originally had the same meaning in English and German. In Old High German and Middle High German Gift was the term for an "object that is given". Although it had always included a euphemistic meaning for "poison" ("being given"), over the following centuries it gradually suffered a full semantic change to the sole present German meaning "poison". It is still reflected in the German term for the English word dowry = Mitgift, das Mitgegebene, "that which is given" (with the wedding).[4] In Swedish, gift means "poison" but also "married".
Cafeteria means "dining hall" in English, cafetería means "coffeehouse" in Spanish, whereas cafetéria means "fringe benefit" in Hungarian.
  • 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 and Dutch Rede (= "speech") (hence Æthelred the 'Unready' would not heed the speech of his advisors), 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 "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).
In Swedish, the word rolig means "fun" (as in "It was a fun party"), while in the closely related languages Danish and Norwegian it means "calm" (as in "he was calm despite all the furore around him"). This can sometimes cause confusion: a Swede exclaiming "It'll be fun!" will have a Dane thinking "How boring".
For example, Latin 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.
An Old and Middle English letter has become a false friend in modern English: the letter thorn(þ) was equivalent to, and pronounced as, th as in "thick" and "though". Its appearance was usually similar to the modern "p", but it was often written very similarly to "Y"; an actual "Y" is substituted in modern pseudo-old-fashioned usage as in "Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe"; the first word means and should be pronounced "the", not "ye" (archaic form of "you").
  • 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 phone.
Japanese is replete with pseudo-anglicisms, known as wasei-eigo ("Japan-made English").


False friends in a Dutch advertisement actually meaning "Mommy, that one, that one, that one ..." "Please."

Since English and German have some of 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 (e.g. 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.")[5]. Another example is the word gift, which in English means a "present" but in German and the Scandinavian languages means "poison".

English "knight" and German Knecht are clearly related (though pronounced differently), and originally had also a similar meaning, denoting a person rather low in the social scale. However, the English one underwent a great upward mobility during the Middle Ages, becoming associated with the aristocracy, while its German equivalent retained the humble meaning of "servant". (To make the confusion even greater, where Knecht received a military meaning - in "Landsknecht" - it denoted foot soldiers rather than cavalry). The German word for English "knight" is Ritter, which is the cognate of English "rider" - but which carries vast social implications absent from the English word.

The German word "Land", spelled exactly like the English one (though pronounced differently) carries many political, constitutional and historical meanings absent from the English term (at present a constituent state of the German Federal Republic, in the past a principality of the Holy Roman Empire).

The title of the well-known Italian novel Il Gattopardo was rendered in English as "The Leopard", in which the translator was led astray by a false friend; Italian gattopardo, while being the cognate of "leopard", in fact refers to other felines (the American ocelot, the African serval and an extinct type of Italian wildcat).

False friends can be most confusing exactly when the meaning in the one language has diverged only slightly from the one in the other. For example, German "Hund" and Dutch "Hond" are the cognates of English "Hound", but they refer to all dogs, whether or not used for hunting. And French "Librairie" is the cognate of "Library" but refers to a bookshop.

Another Spanish/English false friend is "embarrassed/embarazado". Where "embarrassed" in English means approximately "ashamed", a similar-sounding Spanish word, "embarazada", means "pregnant".

A Spanish/Maltese false friend is guapo/a and gwapp/a respectively. While the former means "handsome", the latter gives an ironic sense of "not good at what they do".

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 (e.g. French concurrent is a "competitor" in English). Additionally in some languages a "concourse" (Swedish konkurs, Finnish konkurssi) takes its meaning from "concourse of debtors", that is, it means bankruptcy.

The French verb attendre means "to wait", yet an English speaker learning French might expect the English equivalent to be "attend", which means "to participate in" or "to go to". However, the verb "attend" in English is translated as assister in French and asistir in Spanish, both of which could be further misinterpreted as equivalent to the English "assist", which means "to help". Both cases are examples of false friends.

Semantic change

In bilingual situations, false friends often result in a semantic change—a real new meaning that is then commonly used in a language. For example, the Portuguese humoroso ("capricious") changed its referent in American Portuguese to "humorous," owing to the English surface-cognate "humorous."

"Corn" was originally the dominant type of grain in a region (indeed "corn" and "grain" are themselves cognates from the same Indo-European root). It came to mean usually wheat in England, but maize in North America, although the American usage is becoming dominant in the UK.

The 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".[6]

This phenomenon is analysed by Ghil'ad Zuckermann as "(incestuous) phono-semantic matching".

See also


  1. ^ Shakespeare's false friends
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster definition of verb "table"
  3. ^ Mollin, Sandra (2006), Euro-English: assessing variety status 
  4. ^ Günther Drosdowski, Paul Grebe, editors. 1963. Duden Etymologie Das Herkunftswörterbuch. Series: Das Standardwerk zur deutschen Sprache. Bibliographisches Institut Mannheim/Wien/Zürich. ISBN 3-411-00907-1
  5. ^ Geoff Parkes, Alan Cornell, 1992, "NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates", National Textbook Company, NTC Publishing Group
  6. ^ See p. 102 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, ‘‘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.

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