Friend or Faux? The trickery of false friends

Are you learning a new language? Or perhaps going on a holiday overseas and unfamiliar with the local dialect? Maybe you’d like to converse with a friend in their native tongue?

Whatever motivates you to speak a new language, remember don’t be fooled by ‘false friends’.

What’re false friends you ask?

In linguistics ‘false friends’, also known as false cognates, is the term used to describe words that look or sound similar in two languages. But actually, have a completely different meaning!

False friends happen when languages borrow a word from a root language. Over time the meaning of the word evolves or differs in each language. A person learning a new language may notice a word’s similarity in appearance to one in their native language and assume it has the same meaning. This causes the person to misinterpret the word and consequently, a false friend has occurred.

False Friends was thought of by two French linguists in 1928 and comes from the longer phrase “faux amis du traducteur” (false friends of the translator).

You may see the Spanish word delicioso and instantly think it means delicious in English. You would be right and that’s what linguistics call a near perfect cognate. But don’t get too confident yet for false friends are still out there.

False Friends words can lead people into funny, embarrassing or sometimes even insulting situations.

Here’s a classic example of false friend words. People may think the Spanish word Embarazada has the same meaning as the word embarrassed in English. They look and sound similar right?

Embarazada actually means pregnant in Spanish.

Another example, the word Gymnasium in German does not mean a gym a place where you lift weights. Gymnasium refers to a type of school in Germany and translates to grammar school in English.

Here is a list of common false friends in other languages:

Spanish Resembles in English Actual meaning
constipado constipated a cold
exito exit success
Italian Resembles in English Actual meaning
fabbrica fabric factory
male male evil
French Resembles in English Actual meaning
journee journey day
avertissement advertisement warning
sensible sensible sensitive

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