What is a False Friend?

atkins bookshelf wordsFalse friends are the worst. Just ask Holden Caulfield — he hated phonies with a passion. The Catcher in the Rye is littered with diatribes against phony friends and phonies in general. In linguistics, however, a false friend is something entirely different than a phony friend. The term “false friend” is a shortened version on the longer term “false friend of a translator” coined by two French translators, Jules Derocquigny and Maxime Koessler, in 1928. False friends (in French, faux amis) are words in two different languages that may sound or look familiar but differ significantly in meaning. This is not a case of “lost in translation” but rather “mangled in translation.” For example, in Dutch “die” means “that one”; in English it means “stop living.” Unlike a false friend in real life that can leave you distraught or annoyed, a linguistic false friend can cause you some embarrassment. For multinational companies that name their products unwittingly using a false friend, it creates an expensive marketing disaster (recall Chevrolet’s Nova — in Spanish it means “doesn’t go” — imagine, Chrysler developed a car that doesn’t go…). Here are some common false friends drawn from various languages:

French: bitepronounced “beet'” (penis)
English: beet (a herbaceous plant widely cultivated as a source of food)

French: cul – pronounced “cool” (butt or ass)
English: cool (excellent or at low temperature)

Spanish: embarazada (pregnant)
English: embarrassed (to feel awkward or ashamed)

French: envie (wish or desire)
English: envy (a feeling of discontented longing evoked by someone else’s possessions or situation)

French: fesse (buttock)
English: face (the front of a person’s head)

German: gift (poison)
English: gift (a present)

Swedish: kissa (to pee)
English: kiss (touch with lips as a sign of love)

Dutch: lul (penis)
English: lull (calm; send to sleep)

British English: nonce (slang for child molester)
American English: nonce (present moment; a word used only once)

Turkish: peach (bastard)
English: peach (a round fruit with juicy yellow flesh and downy skin; an attractive person)

Portuguese: peidei (I farted)
English: payday (a day when someone receives their wages)

French/Catalan: pet (fart)
English: pet (domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship)

Russian: preservativ (condom)
English: preservative (a substance used to preserve food)

Korean: seolsa (diarrhea)
English: salsa (a spicy tomato sauce)

British English: spaz (offensive term for disabled person)
American English: spaz (clumsy person)

Read related posts: Best Holden Caulfied Quotes About Phonies
Words Invented by Book Lovers

How Many Words in the English Language?
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
What is the Longest Word in English?
What Rhymes with Orange?
The Most Mispronounced Words
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels

The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations

For further reading: http://www.dictionary.com

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