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False Friends In Languages

Whilst it is entirely proper in an English-speaking country to ask about the preservatives in the food item you would like to buy and grab a birthday gift for your German friend in the shop across the street, we aren’t entirely sure you will get a pleasant reaction if you were to ask the same questions in France and Germany respectively. even though the terms préservatifs (French word for condoms) and gift (German term for poison) exist in both languages.

Humankind aren’t the only group who have to deal with false friends who pretend to be who they aren’t; they drink and dine with you yet they will stab you in the back within a blink of an eye. Languages also have false friends, such words can leave the foreign speaker or listener embarrassed.

False friends in languages refer to words similar in both spelling and pronunciation in different languages, however, their meanings are entirely different. These set of words are not only deceptive, they can hinder communication and create a wrong impression about speakers.

The term was introduced in the 20th Century (1928) by French linguists Maxime Koessler and Jules Derocquigny in their book titled: Les faux amis ou Les trahisons du vocabulaire anglais (conseils aux traducteurs). Since then it has gone on to be termed: deceptive words, false cognates, treacherous twins etc.

It’s not mere coincidence there are words that look and sound alike in various languages. There are factors that contributed to this phenomenon. Some of the factors include:


Shared Etymology– some languages have common ancestry and come from the same language family. The term language family refers to languages related to a common parent or ancestral language. This implies that there is a tendency for such languages to have similar words as they all share the same root. However, since everything in life evolves, these words may go on to acquire differing meanings in their respective languages.


Lexical borrowing – no language has it all. From time immemorial, loanwords have come to the rescue in almost every language. They refer to words adopted from one language and incorporated into another with little or no modification. With time, some of these words may go on to acquire additional meanings or shift in meaning. One interesting thing about lexical borrowing is that any language of the world could borrow from another, even ones without shared ancestry.


Below are some of the false friends we have in English and French.


French                           Meaning                                           English                                    French Equivalence

Abuser                         To take advantage of                        To abuse                                     Insulter

Actuellement               Currently                                          Actually                                     Réllement, en fait, en réalité

Assister ä                     To attend                                            To assist                                     Participer

Bras                             Arms                                                  Bra                                             Soutien-gorge

Blessé                         Wounded                                             Blessed                                      Béni(e)

Chair                           Flesh                                                   Chair                                          Chaise

Chat(te)                      Cat/female                                           To chat                                       Bavarder

                                   reproductive part

Crier                          To Shout                                              To cry                                         Pleurer

Habit                          Clothing                                               Habit                                         Habitude

Hazard                       Chance                                                  Hasard                                      Danger

Gentil                         Kind                                                     Gentle                                       Doux/ce

Librairie                     Bookshop                                            Library                                     Bibliothèque

Pain                           Bread                                                    Pain                                          Douleur

Préservatif                Condom                                                Preservative                             Conservateur/trice

Regarder                  To look at                                              Regard                                     Considérer


These words are worth keeping in mind as we use a lot of them in our daily conversation. Next time you visit any french-speaking country, you wouldn’t get that unpleasant reaction.


Did you ever get that puzzled while in a country that speaks a different language?



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