A World Tour of “False Friends”

You Say Preservative, I Say Condom: A World Tour of “False Friends”

“False friends” aren’t just mean nice people you can’t trust: they’re also a special type of word. Across European languages you’ll meet cognates – words that don’t change much from language to language. In London, you watch “television;” in Paris, it’s “télévision” and in Amsterdam it’s “televisie.” Head a little further east: you’ll be sitting in front of the “telewizja” in Warsaw, zoning out with the “televiziune” in Buchurest, and even catching the news in Moscow on the “televidenie.”

False friends are like the evil twins of cognates: they *sound* perfectly innocent in one language, and you might think they have the same meaning in a nearby language like Spanish, French or German – but don’t be fooled! These “false friends” have one noise, or one set of letters on paper, but what they stand for is totally different among countries and tongues. Check out some of the most common ways you can get in trouble, and remember what Oscar Wilde said: “A true friend stabs you in the front.”

*Feeling a little ashamed? Don’t tell your Spanish friend you’re “embarrassed” by saying “embarazada.” It means “pregnant” (“avergonzado” means “embarrassed.”)

*Preservatives may keep your food fresh in the US and UK, but across the rest of Europe (Spanish, French, Polish, Russian, etc) “preservativ” has a very different function… it means “condom” in all those languages. Keep it off your pizza!

*It may seem ‘crazy’ to you, but “bizarro” is a good thing in Spanish – it means “brave”!

*In Spain, “constipado” has nothing to do with fiber, and everything to do with covering your sneezes: it means “the common cold.” (The problem of too much cheese and not enough greens, for the interested, is “estreñimiento.”)

*If you see a French store with a big “SALE” sign, stay away! It actually means “dirty.” And, as we saw in the first paragraph, “raper” means “to shred or to grate.”

*If you think a German’s talking rude to you, don’t worry – “vomit” just means “with what,” and “damit” means “with that”!

*On the other hand, he may be angry that you offered him a “gift” – it means “poison” in Germany. (So don’t go opening any suspicious barrels marked “gift” outside of Berlin…)

*And, finally, one for the drinkers: if you’re wandering the Netherlands and see a sign marked “Lagere District,” don’t get too excited. It’s not a happy neighborhood dedicated to light beers; alas, in Dutch “lagere” just means “lower.”


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