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False friends are words in two languages (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning. An example is the English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada (which means pregnant), or the word sensible, which means reasonable in English, but sensitive in French and Spanish. Another example is the root L-H-M in Semitic languages; while "Lekhem" in Hebrew and "Laham" in Syriac mean "bread", "Lahem" in Arabic is "meat".
The term is a shortened version of the expression "false friend of a translator", the French version of which (faux amis du traducteur) was introduced by linguists Maxime Kœssler and Jules Derocquigny in 1928, in the book Les Faux Amis ou les trahisons du vocabulaire anglais (False Friends, or the Pitfalls of the English Vocabulary, with a sequel, Autres Mots anglais perfides).
There is often a partial overlap in meanings, which creates additional complications.
Similar words may also fail to catch all the nuances of each word in both languages. For instance, the French demande simply means a 'request', which is similar to but also very different from a demand in English and demandar in Spanish ("to sue").
The two "false friends" may actually be related, having the same origin. One example is in the instance of English "cunt" and Dutch "kont" (buttocks), of which apart from the difference in meaning the former is highly vulgar while the latter is not. This is unlike "false cognates", which are similar words in different languages that appear to have a common historical linguistic origin (whatever their current meaning) but actually do not.
As well as producing completely false friends, the 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. For example, angst means "fear" in a general sense (as well as "anxiety") in German, but when it was borrowed into English in the context of psychology, its meaning was restricted to a particular type of fear described as "a neurotic feeling of anxiety and depression". Also, gymnasium meant both 'a place of education' and 'a place for exercise' in Latin, but its meaning was restricted to the former in German and to the latter in English, making the expressions into false friends in those languages as well as in Greek, where it started out as 'a place for naked exercise'.
False friends can cause difficulty for people who might interpret a foreign text incorrectly. For example, 'wetter' is the word for "weather" in German, and a person who commands English but not German might see the word in a newspaper and misinterpret it to mean the forecast is rainy. Students learning a foreign language, particularly one that is related to their native language, also have difficulty with false friends because students are likely to identify the words wrongly due to linguistic interference. For this reason, teachers sometimes compile lists of false friends as an aid for their students.
However, the Armenian linguist Samuel Garibian has devised a way to make positive use of false friends in teaching English vocabulary to native Russian speakers, by grouping the English word to be learned together with its Russian false friend in a memorable, often humorous, sentence. (For example, the English word "afraid" is grouped with its Russian false friend "yefreitor" (ефрейтор), meaning "corporal", in the sentence "Вся Европа боялась одного ефрейтора" (meaning "All Europe was afraid of one corporal".) )
False friends are also a frequent source of difficulty between speakers of different dialects 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 separated by a common language". For example, in the UK (and in other Commonwealth countries), to "table" a motion means to place it on the agenda (to bring it to the table for consideration), while in the US it means exactly the opposite—"to remove it from consideration" (to lay it aside on the table rather than hold it up for consideration). Similarly, the Spanish word limón refers to a lemon in some parts of the Spanish-speaking world but a lime in others.
A particularly troublesome case with false friends occurs when one of the two words is obscene or derogatory (a cacemphaton, Greek for "ill-sounding"). Well-known examples are the words fag (in British English referring to a cigarette, but in American English is an offensive term for a homosexual man), root (in American and British English a verb meaning "to support, cheer", but in Australian English a verb meaning "to copulate with"), and Spanish coger (meaning 'to take' in Spain and parts of Central America, but also 'to have sex with' in Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina). Fagotto in Italian, Fagot in Spanish and Dutch and Fagott in German all mean a bassoon, cognate to a derogatory American English term for a homosexual man. Swedish prick and Norwegian prikk means a point or dot.
手紙 means "toilet paper" in Chinese, but it means "written message" in Japanese.
In some cases this has led to significant controversy, e.g. when Tiger Woods described himself as a "spaz" which in American English simply means a "clumsy person", but in British English is an offensive term for a disabled person.
From the etymological point of view, false friends can be created in several ways.
If Language A borrowed a word from Language B, or both borrowed the word from a third language or inherited it from a common ancestor, and later the word shifted in meaning or acquired additional meanings in at least one of these languages, a native speaker of one language will face a false friend when learning the other. Sometimes, presumably both senses were present in the common ancestor language, but the cognate words got different restricted senses in Language A and Language B.
For example, the words preservative (English), préservatif (French), Präservativ (German), prezervativ (Romanian, Czech, Croatian), preservativo (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese), prezerwatywa (Polish), презерватив prezervativ (Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Macedonian), prezervatif (Turkish), præservativ (Danish), prezervatyvas (Lithuanian), Prezervatīvs (Latvian) and preservatiu (Catalan) are all derived from the Latin word praeservativum. But 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', and has the logical derivative as a verb, meaning 'to make current' or 'to update'. Actualise (or 'actualize') in English means 'to make a reality of'.
The word friend itself has cognates in the other Germanic languages; but the Scandinavian ones (like Swedish frände, Danish frænde) predominantly mean 'relative'. The original Proto-Germanic word meant simply 'someone who one cares for' and could therefore refer to both a friend and a relative, but lost various degrees of the 'friend' sense in Scandinavian languages, while it mostly lost the sense of 'relative' in English. (The plural friends is still rarely used for "kinsfolk", as in the Scottish proverb Friends agree best at a distance, quoted in 1721.)
The Arabic word مخزن makhzān is used for a depot, store or warehouse, and has been borrowed in this sense in Persian (مغازه magaze), Italian (magazzino), Romanian (magazin), French (magasin), Dutch (magazijn), Greek (μαγαζί magazi), Russian (магазин magazin), Finnish (makasiini) and Spanish (almacén, with the Arabic definite article); but this sense is largely obsolete in English, in which magazine has also the meaning of 'periodic publication'. French and Serbian have doublets, related words of slightly different form with these two meanings. Several languages also use the same word or a related word for magazine (firearms).
The Italian word confetti (sugared almonds) has acquired a new meaning in English and French; in Italian, the corresponding word is coriandoli.
|Spanish adjective||Meaning||English false friend|
|constipado||congested (false friend only in Spain)||constipated|
|embarazada||pregnant, pregnant woman||embarrassed|
|entrañable||close, intimate, dearly (be)loved||trainable, entrainable|
|soso||dull, uninteresting, tasteless||so-so|
|vidrioso||glass, brittle, glazed||vitriolic|
|Japanese||Romaji||Meaning||English false friend|
|アバウト||abauto||Vague, lazy, sloppy||about|
|チャレンジ||charenji||To attempt a difficult task||challenge|
|サイダー||saidā||A sweet and sour carbonated drink||cider|
|カンニング||kanningu||Cheating in an exam||cunning|
|ダイエット||daietto||Any kind of weight-loss regimen||diet|
|フェミニスト||feminisuto||A man who pampers woman||feminist|
|ホーム||hōmu||Train station platform||home|
|ハイテンション||haitenshon||Excited, excitable, hyperactive||high tension|
|マンション||manshon||Block of flats, condominium||mansion|
|プリント||purinto||Advertising flyer or handout|
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', often religious in nature) (hence Æthelred the 'Unready' was ill-advised, and the word unready is cognate with the Dutch word onraad meaning trouble, danger), while English and Dutch rat for the rodent has its German cognate Ratte.
In another example, the word bra in the Swedish language means 'good' or 'well'. Scots also has the word braw, which has much the same use and shares etymology. Swedish also has the word god, which is often used as a descriptor of taste: god mat ("good food"), en god öl ("a good beer"); in fixed expressions such as: god dag ("how do you do, good day"), god jul ("merry Christmas"); or to express benevolence: en god gärning ("a good deed"), god eller ond ("good or evil"; compare bra eller dålig, which means "good or bad"). Bra is usually used as an adverb, while god is usually used as an adjective, and they are not usually interchangeable: compare kocken lagar god mat ("the chef cooks good food") with middagen gick bra ("the dinner went well"). Bra has the same meaning in Norwegian as in Swedish. In both languages Bara bra (Sw.) or Bare bra (No.) as a response to "How are you?" is very common (likewise Ha det bra as a form of "Good bye"). In English, 'bra' is short for the French brassière, which is an undergarment that supports the breasts. The full English spelling, brassiere, now rarely used, 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': ett roligt skämt ("a funny joke"), while in the closely related languages Danish and Norwegian it means 'calm' (as in "he was calm despite all the commotion around him"). However, the Swedish original meaning of 'calm' is retained in some related words such as ro, 'calmness', and orolig, 'worrisome, anxious', literally 'un-calm'.
An Old and Middle English letter has become a false friend in modern English: the letters thorn (þ) and eth (ð) were used interchangeably to represent voiceless and voiced dental fricatives now written in English as th (as in thick and the). Though the thorn character (whose appearance was usually similar to the modern p) was most common, the eth could equally be used. Because of its similarity to an oblique minuscule y (particularly in blackletter), 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 (an archaic form of you).
For example, in German Handy refers to a mobile phone. Beamer refers to a computer projector or video projector rather than a car or motorcycle manufactured by BMW. "Oldtimer" refers to a classic car. In Dutch, the words "oldtimer" and "beamer" are used in the same meaning as in German.
French and Italian footing is perfect English morphologically, but out of context the meaning "jogging" is unrecognizable to native speakers of English, who understand the term to mean "foothold, foundation."
In Norwegian, "trailer" refers to a truck and trailer, or sometimes only the truck, while "truck" means a forklift.
In French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Polish, Russian, and other European languages the tuxedo jacket is called a smoking, a smokin in Turkish, and in Spanish it is an esmoquin. This name is in reference to the jacket’s early similarity to Victorian smoking jackets.
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 cereals in general in the British Isles in the nineteenth century, as in the Corn laws, but maize in North America, and now often just maize also in the British Isles.
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 became the new signifier for 'farm' (Weinreich 1963: 49; see "one-to-one correlation between signifiers and referents").
- "Italian False Friends". To Be a Travel Agent.
- "German Loan Words in English". About.com. Retrieved 2014-04-28.
- "Online Etymology Dictionary". etymolyonline.com. Retrieved 2014-04-28.
- Garibian, Samuel (1996). Moy Novy Vavilon. Ilbi. ISBN 5-87483-033-2.
- "Quotationspage.com". Quotationspage.com. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- "Merriam-Webster definition of verb "table"". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- Silva Rhetoricae, Cacemphaton.
- κακέμφατος. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
- "A Brief History of "Spaz"". Language Log. 2006-04-13. Retrieved 2013-09-24.
- Mollin, Sandra (2006), Euro-English: assessing variety status
- "Confetto in Enciclopedia Treccani". Treccani.it. Retrieved 2014-06-23.
- Orolig (in Swedish) (band 19 ed.). Lund: Svenska Akademiens Ordbok, SAOB – a comprehensive historical dictionary published by the Swedish Academy. 1950. p. spalt O 1337. Retrieved 8 May 2017.
[fsv. oroliker; jfr dan. o. nor. urolig, nor. dial. uroleg, nyisl. órólegur (jfr isl. úróliga, adv.), mlt. unrouwelik, (ä.) t. unruhlich; av O- 1 o. ROLIG, lugn, delvis möjl. avledn. av ORO]
- "Language and Linguistics/R". Infoplease.com.
- "Want to meet two extinct letters of the alphabet? Learn what "thorn" and "wynn" sounded like". Blog.dictionary.com.
- "Road". Collinsdictionary.com.
- "Tai". Wordsense.eu.
- 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). p. 102. ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.
|Look up false friend in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: False Friends of the Slavist|
|Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Esperanto/Appendix/False friends|
- wikt:Category:False cognates and false friends on Wiktionary
- An online hypertext bibliography on false friends
- German/English false friends
- Spanish/English false friends
- French/English false friends
- Italian/English false friends
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- English/Dutch false friends
- LanguageTool support for false friends according to rules in this format.
- Die Deutschen und ihr Englisch. The devil lies in the detail (tagesspiegel.de, 2015)
- Der DEnglische Patient - Kolumne von Peter Littger (Manager Magazin, 2016)