An (occasionally irreverent) look at . . .

LANGUAGE - A Nurturing Potential series

Part VIII -FALSE FRIENDS - and more

Contributed by Joe Sinclair


What are linguistical false friends?

False friends is a variant on the expression False cognates, so it is best, perhaps, to start this article with a reminder of what is a cognate.

Cognates are words of different languages that are related. For example, the English to pay and the French payer. These words are cognates because they derive from the same root.  Similarly the French venir derives from the Latin venire.

False cognates (false friends) are words that appear to be related, but are not.  An example is the Spanish compromiso, which means "promise," not "compromise".  An extensive list of such false friends is provided at Appendix A, which may be reached by the following link.

The existence of this phenomenon of false cognates is of particular relevance to students of foreign languages, for whom there is inevitably a tendency to presume that the similarity of a foreign word to one in their own language implies that the words have similar meaning.  This can lead to confusion.

I recall an experience of my own.  Some four decades ago when I had moved to Switzerland a few months in advance of my wife and daughter, I wanted to buy a present for my wife in a small village shop.  I tried to explain to the sales assistant that I was seeking to buy a present, but I did not recall the German for "present", and she spoke neither English nor French (a language in which I was fluent).  I nevertheless tried the French "cadeau", but that evidently made no impression.  Then I tried the English alternative "gift" and this struck an instant chord.  I inferred from her next question that she wanted to know for whom the gift was intended.  So I said; "Mein Frau" - feeling very proud of myself for my German prowess - and was then flabbergasted by her startled reaction.  After several seconds more of fruitless attempts at a discussion, I excused myself and left the shop.  That evening, in my hotel restaurant, I asked the waiter, with whom I always conversed in French, what was the German word for "cadeau".  "Geschenk," he replied.  "So what is the meaning of Gift?" I asked.  "Ah," he said, "cela veut dire le poison" (That means poison.)  No wonder the sales assistant was taken aback at my confession!

It is worth noting here that had I actually been enquiring in French for poison, I would have risked a different misunderstanding.  The masculine French noun, le poison, correctly corresponds to the English "poison".  A simple slip of referring to la poison, however, would refer to a nuisance, a pest, an annoying person.  The path to bilingualism is fraught with dangers.

One is, indeed, reminded of another series of real and hypothetical false friends.  The words Präservativ (German) and prezerwatywa (Polish) are derived from the French préservatif, which means both "preservative" and "condom", though conservateur is more frequently used for preservative.  It may be of some interest to note that the French expression "une capote anglaise" corresponds to the English slang expression "a French letter" - both nations apparently wishing to deny any involvement in the device.  But English schoolboy humour relates the story of the Englishman in Paris who learns that his wife has died.  He needs to buy a black hat, to complete his mourning outfit.  In the department store he approaches the sales assistant and, in his execrable French, asks for "une capeau noir".  "Ah," says the assistant, "Monsieur requires the pharmacie on the second floor.  But tell me, monsieur, why must it be black?"  "Because," the Englishman replies, "my wife has died."  "Ooh la la, ces anglais," says the assistant, "Quelle delicatesse!" (What sensitivity!)

In fact the origin of the expression "false friends" is believed to be French, dating from 1928 when Koessler and Derocquigny used it in their book Les Faux Amis ou les Trahisons du Vocabulaire Anglais (Vulbert) and French/English comparisons have been quite comprehensively catalogued, as, indeed, have German/English and Spanish/English.

But there are also difficulties for people of two quite different nationalities trying to express themselves in English and being confused because the apparent cognates in their two languages have totally dissimilar meanings in English.  Or an English person speaking a foreign language quite fluently and then trying to learn a further foreign language where apparent cognates are very false friends. Appendix B gives examples of Swedish and Dutch words which look alike, but are quite different in English. 


From false friends to friendly falsehoods

In addition to confusion that may arise between similar words in different languages that in fact have quite different meanings, there are also words that have been incorporated from one language into another and, in the process, may have had their meanings corrupted.  Sometimes this is done quite deliberately and the resultant word, phrase or sentence will be  given such names as Denglisch, Engleutsch or Germish (for a corruption of English and German), or Franglais (for a mixture of English and French).  The advent of the domestic computer has speeded this process up considerably and an example we have seen in German (or Germish) is: "Ich musste den Computer neu booten, weil die Software gecrasht ist" that I am assured is perfectly legitimate use by otherwise fluent native German speakers.  It translates as "I had to reboot the computer because the software crashed.

I have heard that the Japanese equivalent of this tendency is known as Engrish.  But this may have been offered tongue-in-cheek.  Certainly a story was circulated (possibly apocryphally) based on the Japanese difficulty in distinguishing between the "r" and the "l" sounds, that when the Mitsubishi Corporation had to name a new model of car, it determined on an analogy with the Ford Mustang, and decided to call it the Mitsubishi Stallion.  In the event (the story has it that it was a clerical error of mispronunciation) it reached the showrooms as the Mitsubishi Starion.  No one was able satisfactorily to explain the meaning of "starion" - so perhaps the story was not apocryphal after all.

There are also words that are borrowed from English and used in other languages, sometimes with the precise meaning they have in English, but sometimes in a way English speakers would not readily recognise or understand.  In the first category, we are reminded of the way General de Gaulle in the 1950s had a blitz on the adoption of so many English words into the French language.  He issued explicit instructions to the Académie Francaise to excise them and produce excellent original French replacements of which there were an abundance.  For example, he insisted that "pipeline" be replaced by oleoducte.   Another such word, which is still in vogue in French and is also used in German, is the English word "smoking", in the sense of a smoking jacket (used widely in Victorian and Edwardian times, but now pretty well extinct!).  But it is still commonly heard in Germany and in France, where its meaning corresponds to the English/American dinner jacket or tuxedo.

There is, these days, a fashion in Germany to invent "chic" words based upon English derivations.  Thus we have "twen", "talkmaster", "dressman" and "fesch" as examples.  Few English people would know or even understand the meaning of these pseudo-Anglicisms.

Twen - is someone in their twenties.  "He/she is a twen."

Talkmaster - is a radio or TV talk show host.

Dressman - is a male model.

Fesch - (more Austrian than German in origin) is "natty", "chic", "attractive" or  "dashing", and presumably derives from the English "fashionable".

Here's another nice example:

The Russians have adopted (adapted?) a German word for barber or hairdresser.  The Russian word "parikmakher" derives from the German "Perük(en)macher" which literally means "wig-maker" which, in English, in turn has been adapted from "(peri)wig-maker", or "peruke-maker".  The word in fact originates in the Italian "perrucca" via the French "perruque".  Thus the wig-maker of centuries ago has ended up as the hairdresser of today.


From the sublime to the ridiculous

On the South African Kapstadt (Cape Town) website we spotted an amusing piece of doggerel composed by "Friedrich" in 2002.  We have reproduced it as Appendix C and even if you do not speak or understand German, we think you will have little difficulty in following his pun-ishing use of false friends and friendly falsehoods.

In similar vein I have reproduced at Appendix D, for those who do not know them - and perhaps even more satisfying to those who do know them, but need reminding - some of the verses from the ballads of Hans Breitmann written by Charles Godfrey Leland.  When it is realised that these were originally written during the American Civil War, and were first brought to public attention in 1868 - it is plain that nothing has really changed over the centuries.  Apart from the use of "Germish" or "Engleutsch", their humour is in the direct tradition of Shakespeare's Falstaff. .

Finally, at Appendix E, I have reproduced a further set of friendly falsehoods, excavated from my archives, which purport to be German equivalents of English motoring terms provided by the European Union.  Believe that and you'll believe anything, as they say.


Or groan.


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A nice inadvertent example of a German word being borrowed in English.  It was adopted in World War II from the German word blitzkrieg (meaning lightning strike - literally lightning war) and is now part of the English dictionary where it is not even italicised.