What are false friends?

Hands up if you’ve heard of cognates? If I was reading this a week ago, my arm would certainly have been in the air (and I’d be able to time travel – wohoo!). Cognates are real friends to language learners, however. They are what makes it significantly easier for English speakers to have a chance of understanding French, German and other European languages besides. They are also my excuse for still only having a very basic vocabulary in Indonesian, despite having been married to my Indonesian husband for eight years.

So what are cognates?

In case you haven’t guessed already, cognates are words that sound similar in different languages. Like “fish” and “Fisch” (even “pesce” is a little like Pisces – the fish star sign) or “house” and “Haus”. Cognates can be very helpful when it comes to learning a new language, or trying to work out what someone speaking a different language is on about. They can be the difference between making a language seem easy to pick up and a bit of a nightmare.

Take Indonesian for example: despite the grammar being far simpler than that of many other languages (no tenses, no verb conjugations and no gendered pronouns), it is quite hard to pick up because no words sound at all similar to English words or even French, Italian or German words. “Fish” is “ikan”, “house” is “rumah” and “chicken” is “ayam” (pronounced “I am”). Which brings me nicely onto the topic of the day: false friends.

david clode 521338 unsplash LEaF Translations

What do cognates have to do with false friends?

Cognates are like the angel to the false friend devil. Cognates make it easier to understand and to learn other languages. It is far easier to learn words in a foreign language that bear some relation to their counterparts in your language. When learning a new language, we automatically try to find connections and links to words that we already know, to speed up the learning process and to help our memories out. Just like learning the Italian word for “fish” – just remember it is a bit like “Pisces” the fish star sign, and you are halfway there.

So, all in all, cognates are great. But, there is a danger with them too: they lure you into a false sense of security. For all the time and effort that cognates can save you, so their devilish counterparts false cognates or “false friends” can expose you as a non-native speaker and, if you happen upon the right (or wrong) one, can even cause a great deal of embarrassment.

So what are false friends?

False friends are like cognates, only instead of guiding you to the correct word, they mislead you into thinking a word that sounds the same has the same meaning. One good example is the English word “embarrassed” and the Spanish “embarazada”, which means pregnant. As you can see, false friends can be the source of a great deal of trouble.

This blog will focus on false friends between the English and German languages – because that is our speciality here at LEaF – but they exist between many languages.

Let’s start with a joke…


This joke has the very specific target audience of only really making sense to people who speak both English and German. The word “Gift” exists in German as well as English, only rather than meaning a present, it means poison. Not one to mix up!

Some of the best false friends in English and German

sensible / sensibel
This is a false friend that I see a lot. The fact that the German word appears to be a German spelling of the English word lures you into a false sense of security. The English word “sensible” is usually translated as “vernünftig” and is similar in meaning to reasonable. The adjective is used to describe an action that makes sense, or someone who tends to act in a rational way or in a way that is expected. In German, however, “sensibel” actually means “sensitive”, or someone who is easily affected by something. As you can see, both meanings are related to the senses but they have very different connotations.

A very common word (and drink) in English. In German, lager is known as Pilsner or Pils for short (“Ein Pils, bitte” – it just rolls off the tongue, and takes me back to many a German bar!)
The German word “Lager” actually has nothing to do with beer. A “Lager” is a warehouse; a place where you store things. This false friend does have potential to combine the two languages and make something awesome though: anyone for a lager Lager?

In German, lemon is “Zitrone” and “Limone” is lime. This has almost certainly been designed to trip up English speakers. It reminds me of the classic “Apfelsinensaft”. I ordered this when I was first in Germany on a school exchange. I knew that “Apfel” meant apple and so I was most put out when they brought me a glass of orange juice. Hilariously, “Apfelsine” is another word for orange, alongside, well “Orange”.

What a lovely word. Someone who beams a lot? “You are such a beamer, you are always smiling” someone might say in an alternate universe. Sadly, the word doesn’t actually exist in English and in German its meaning is far less joyful – “Beamer” is the German word for an overhead projector. Poetic it is not!

beamers LEaF Translations

Auto-corrected by my computer to “pregnant” and pronounced in very similar fashion, but “pregnant” actually has nothing to do with impending motherhood: the German adjective means concise.

Spelt the same in English and German, but while the English word is a fairly outdated word for a sports hall or place where you exercise – hence the far better-known word, gym (fitness studio) – a German “Gymnasium” is a secondary school.

A very satisfying word in German – a mild swearword, literally meaning manure. Unfortunately for many English speakers, it is pronounced exactly the same as “missed” and, in fact, “mist” – the phrase “there’s a lot of mist around here” has the potential to be quite alarming!

This sounds great in English. I would love a personal chef, I would never have to cook again! Sadly, the German word doesn’t have anything to do with food preparation. A “Personalchef” is basically a HR manager. Not something I’m quite so enthusiastic about, if truth be told…

This German word does mean comfortable, but it also means convenient. The more common German word for the English “comfortable” is, in fact, “bequem”. “komfortabel” tends to mean convenient, which isn’t very, well, convenient!

This sounds like a pretty horrible place, yet there is one in every German town and it will be signposted liberally and included in all good tours. Thankfully, a “Rathaus” has nothing to do with rats – it is actually the German name for the “town hall”.

A common word in both the English and German languages. Spelt the same, pronounced almost identically, but while one means bright and light, the other means the darkest place of all… In short, don’t be put off if you see an ad for “ein helles Zimmer”!

helles zimmer raphael schaller 1 LEaF Translations

Needless to say, there are plenty more false friends. They are tricky little devils, seemingly designed to trip up people trying their hand at a second language. Sadly, there is no way around them other than to learn what they mean and avoid making a fool of yourself in the future!

Want to write better English? Download our FREE guide to English grammar!

What are your favourite false friends? Have you ever found yourself in a spot of bother after using one? Let us know over on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/leaftranslationsyork/.

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If you enjoyed this article, why not check out some other Technical Translation posts, such as The Ultimate Guide to Translating Idioms, The Native Speaker Principle or the classic What do translators actually do?

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Lucy LEaF blog 2020

About the Author


Lucy Pembayun is the founder of LEaF Translations and a qualified German to English translator. Specialising in marketing, website and SEO translations, Lucy spent over a decade working as a freelance translator before launching LEaF Translations back in 2017. A passionate advocate for ethical business and sustainability, Lucy recently spoke on the topic of Net Zero for Businesses at the annual Business Summit for the York and North Yorkshire region. Outside of work, Lucy enjoys exploring new places and cultures, playing and watching football, and spending time with her family and friends.