They seem nice… They seem obvious… They seem friendly… But beware! Words are not always what they seem to be!
False friends are pairs of words and phrases in two languages that look and/or sound familiar, but differ significantly in meaning.
Pesci in Italian may sound like the English peach, but you should never ask for succo di pesci when in Italy. If you do ask a waiter to bring you succo di pesci, don’t be surprised when they all laugh at you, as you just ordered fish juice, not peach juice.
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, false friends are there to get you in trouble. They may not be as tricky as idioms – or maybe they are – but they can quickly lead to misunderstandings.
These 5 words could get you into a lot of trouble!
1. Gift (German)
My personal favourite is gift. This word brings so much joy to English-speaking people. Who doesn’t like to receive a gift? Well, there’s a whole nation that doesn’t. Actually, there are four (please correct me if I’m wrong in the comments section below): the Germans, the Danish, the Norwegians, and the Swedish. For these the word gift means poison.
To make matters even more complicated, gift in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish means not only poison (noun), but also married (adjective). I wonder if there’s a connection between these meanings.
2. Bombeiro (Portuguese)
It starts with bomb and it has the suffix denoting someone who works with the suffixed noun; it must be a (suicide) bomber, right? Wrong. It’s a fire-fighter. Portuguese fire-fighters work with bombs, but their bombs are those machines for making the water flow in a certain direction. The fire-fighters know how to pump water onto the flames.
3. Кoвёр [kɐˈvʲɵr] (Russian)
It almost sounds like caviar. The most well-known type of caviar, and also the most expensive, is the one from the Beluga sturgeon fish, which mainly lives in the salty Caspian Sea, which is near Russia. It seems perfectly logic to think that Кoвёр [kɐˈvʲɵr] means caviar, so a lot of people fall into this trap. But it actually means carpet or rug. This is a bit disappointing, unless we’re talking about a Persian Кoвёр, that is.
4. Gem (Swedish)
Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls… all these sound so expensive. So why do Swedish people offer gems carelessly on a daily basis? No, they’re not sitting on a gemstone mine, nor they are the richest nation of the world. For them, gem is a paper clip. Everybody offers paper clips carelessly.
5. Librairie (French)
Since the English language was considerably affected by the French language for almost 300 years, I just had to include a faux ami in this list. Even though the French librairie and the English library share a certain passion for books, you can’t take a book out of a librairie without paying for it first – because it is a book shop.
Don’t try this abroad!
You’ll find even more ‘false friends’ on this post from the Telegraph.