False friends for English speakers: a guide

November 10, 2023

What are false friends in language?

False friends, or the expression faux amis we English speakers get from the French, are words that sound similar, but have different meanings

Most practising their speaking skills in a new language might trip up on them. They are sneaky little words or expressions that come in disguise, appearing to be an obvious translation from our mother tongue when, really, their meaning is completely different.

What are some examples of false friends?

Not sure you’re following? Get to grips with the idea by checking out these two false friend examples: 

1. The one with all the ‘embarrassment’

Imagine an English woman is going out with a Spanish man

One day, the English woman spills her coffee all over her Spanish boyfriend. 

When she tells her boyfriend, Estoy embarazada, she might think she is telling him that she is embarrassed, but on seeing the look of shock on his face she realises she has said something completely different.

No, she has not told him that she feels ashamed of what she has done… she has actually told him that she’s pregnant!

2. The one where you ‘become’ what you eat

A German lady is trying to order food in an English restaurant.

She says to the native English-speaking waiter, “I would like to become a steak, please.”

Naturally, the waiter looks rather bewildered. Surely she’d prefer to have her steak and eat it than become one?!

But what the English waiter doesn’t realise is that the German word bekommen (to get) strongly resembles the English word become – and that’s where the confusion started.

So, this begs the question: how do false friends like this occur in language? 

Well, in this example, since both the German and English languages have Germanic origins (and a lot of words in common, as a result!), both verbs derive from the Proto-Germanic word bikweman, which means “to get something”. 

Old English changed this word’s meaning, while in German it stayed the same. So although these two words have the same linguistic historical origin, the verbs become and bekommen no longer have the same meaning.

Watch out for the false friends on this list if you’re an English speaker 

Want to avoid making faux amis when mastering a new language? We’ve handpicked a few false friends that might cause you trouble:

English –> German

English wordGerman translationFaux amiFalse friend translation
cafésmall restaurantKaffeecoffee

Spanish –> English

Spanish wordEnglish translationFaux amiFalse friend translation
asilohome for senior citizensasylummanicomio

Portuguese –> English

Portuguese wordEnglish translationFaux amiFalse friend translation
compromissocommitmentcompromisechegar a um termo comum
costumehabitcostumetraje típico

And there you have it!

Just a handful of slippery false friends to be getting along with.

Though try not to fret too much about making mistakes like these. 

The worst thing that could happen is you trip up, learn from your mistake, and end up with a funny anecdote to break the ice at your next dinner party! 

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