3 Common False Friends

Learning a language can be a bumpy ride. You’re cruising along, doing pretty well and feeling rather proud of yourself when yet again, something comes along to trip you up. One of these fun things is something called a false friend. Now, I don’t mean someone who goes shopping with you and tells you that you look great in that bright pink dress and you should definitely buy it, when in fact you look hideous and are at risk of frightening little children on the street. But it’s not that different. In language terms, a false friend is a word that you think is your friend (because it seems easy to remember as it looks/sounds almost the same as the word in your native language) but in fact has a completely different meaning. In other words, it’s going to trip you up and watch you fall on your language-learning ass. Let me give you some examples:

question what do you mean

1. irritiert (German) versus irritated (English)
If you are irritated in English, it means you are annoyed. Someone on the underground is talking on their phone at the top of their voice. Worse, someone is sitting opposite you, chomping loudly on a strange German sandwich creation of raw pork mince and raw onions (welcome to the wonderful world of Mettwurst) and failing to close their mouth while they do so. Your blood pressure is slightly up. As a friend of mine always says, you’re feeling a bit “Grrrrrrrr”. That’s the English version of irritated. However, when I first came to Frankfurt, a German friend of mine often said “Ich bin irritiert”. I often wondered what her problem was. Why is she so irritated all the time? She’s smiling and doesn’t seem annoyed; what’s that all about? Only later did I discover that “Ich bin irritiert” translates into English as “I’m confused/I don’t understand”. Aha! That explains a lot. Vice versa, a client of mine once showed me some emails he had been writing in English to a guy in the London office. On more than one occasion he had written: “I’m irritated by your presentation”, meaning of course he was confused/there was something he didn‘t understand. London was not impressed.

2. Rezept (German) versus Recipe (English)
This one comes up a lot. Especially when you live in a country where people are obsessed with their health, have an Apotheke (pharmacy) on every corner, enjoy describing their illnesses to you in excruciating detail and apparently make more visits (up to 14 a year!) to their doctor than any other country in Europe. In German, Rezept has a couple of meanings. It is not only used as recipe for cooking, baking etc. but also as the word for prescription, as in the holy piece of paper you get from your doctor to go to the nearest Apotheke (never more than about 100 metres away) and get your medication.

pills painkillers

For me, this came up again a few months ago. Although I remember doing lots of painful role-play conversations while struggling my way through my Deutsch Heute textbook at school, I don’t remember any of the roleplays evere covering “Mother falls on tram and breaks her wrist”. Long story short, mother fell over, broke her wrist, tram transport in Frankfurt came to a halt, ambulance came, so did the police (who tried to fine me 500 euro for not having my passport with me!) went to the ER, she had an operation and my husband had an extra unexpected week of his in-laws. Sorry Deutsch Heute but “I’d like a Bratwurst please” just doesn’t cut it in those situations. Anyway, when she was finally being discharged from the hospital, the surgeon (who actually spoke excellent English) still fell for the false friend and told her he would give her a “recipe for the painkillers”. Mother was confused (irritiert) and probably also a bit irritated (genervt) and replied, “What? I have to make them myself??!” Brilliant.

3. sensible (German and English) versus sensitive (English)
This one not only comes up in German, but also in Spanish and French. All these languages use the word sensible as we in English would use the word sensitive/delicate:

“Sie ist sehr sensible.”“She’s very sensitive.”
(likely to start crying)
“Es ist ein sensibles Thema.”“It’s a sensitive issue.”
(A delicate issue that needs to be handled with care.)

Sensible in English on the other hand means reasonable/practical.

“She’s a sensible child.”
(you can trust her to make the right/reasonable decisions)
“Sie ist ein vernünftiges Kind.”
high heels

My parents have spent their life telling me to wear “sensible shoes”. If you’re not sure what that means, forget crazy Jimmy Choo (instruments of torture) high heels and picture some comfortable Birkenstocks or some hiking boots. Sensible shoes. My dad even took this advice to such an extreme that on the morning of my wedding, he arrived at my room to pick me up with a Tesco shopping bag in hand, insisting I needed to wear “sensible shoes” (i.e. my sweaty running shoes rather than my pretty strappy high-heeled sandals) with my wedding dress to avoid tripping on the cobbled streets on my way to the castle. “Sensible shoes Rebecca!“ Sweet of him to worry about me but was never going to happen!

Unfortunately, the list of false friends goes on and on. For more help with German/English false friends, I find this list pretty helpful. What about false friends in other languages? Are there any you always mix up? Feel free to share your stories below and remember you can subscribe to my blog by adding your email address to the box on the right.

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