Frances’s favorite false friends

While the film Mean Girls popularized the concept of frenemies in the early aughts, translators and travelers have been dealing with a very different kind of ‘false friends’ since language began to evolve.

A chip off the old block

Even to a monolingual observer, it’s very easy to tell that English and German have common roots. Words such as Haus (house), Ball (ball), Funktion (function) and Instrument (instrument) will all sound familiar to English speakers. But as anyone who has tried to master the language will attest, that doesn’t mean learning German is a cakewalk. German and English share an equal or greater number of so-called false friends – that is, terms that sound the same but in fact have different meanings. Here are a few of my favorites – don’t be fooled!

Handy != handy

No, in German this does not mean that someone is good with tools. This ubiquitous term instead refers to cell phones. Given that the English ‘handy’ already has an entirely different meaning and is indeed a different part of speech, it may seem odd that Germans use this word to refer to mobile phones – particularly since it’s pronounced the English way rather than with a rounder ‘ah’ as in die Hand. However, there might be an underlying logic at play. After all, in Korean, the colloquial term for mobiles is the similarly English-derived 핸드폰 , pronounced ‘haen-duh-pohn’, or ‘hand phone’.

Peperoni != pepperoni

You’re new in Berlin and excitedly order a Pizza mit Peperoni from You think it’s a bit odd that it’s listed in the ‘Vegetarisch’ section, but assume there was a glitch on the website, since the pairing of thinly sliced, dark red salami and pizza is so universal, right? But when the pizza finally arrives after an hour of waiting, you’re confronted with a pie covered with pickled green chilis that bear an unwelcome resemblance to a sandwich topping at Subway back in Cleveland. You desperately check the receipt, search for your order confirmation, and finally enter Pizza mit Peperoni into Google Translate. Oops!

Präservativ != preservative

In the English-speaking world, preservatives have gotten a bad rap for adding unnatural chemicals to foods. But in Germany, plenty of people carry Präservative on them at all times. That’s because it’s another word for Kondome – or condoms. In this case, however, English is the odd language out: preservativo and préservatif also mean condom in Spanish and French, respectively.

Das Gift != the gift

Now switch the meanings of the previous pair of false friends. In German, das Gift translates to ‘the poison’. Accordingly, it probably makes sense to avoid anything described with the corresponding adjective, giftig.

From friends to frenemies?

False friends form for a number of reasons. In some cases, they might have a common ancestor but developed different meanings, while in other instances, certain words have been borrowed from different languages altogether and then used, probably entirely incorrectly, in distinctive ways. As far as German goes, it seems clear to an English native speaker living in Berlin that many stem from Germans who think they are fluent in English, but are in fact not. Either way, it’s best to look on the bright side and think of these language traps as keeping us vigilant, making us constantly double-check translations both in our head and on paper.

Picture: Pixabay (CC0)

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