What Words Are False Friends?

Cropped image of woman holding bird
In Old English, "wif" referred to any woman, married or not. A "fugol" (fowl) was any bird, not just a farmyard one. Jure Kralj / EyeEm / Getty Images

In linguistics, the informal term false friends refers to pairs of words in two languages (or in two dialects of the same language) that look and/or sound the same but have different meanings. Also known as false (or deceptive) cognates.

The term false friends (in French, faux amis) was coined by Maxime Koessler and Jules Derocquigny in Les faux amis, ou, les trahisons du vocabulaire anglais (False Friends, or, the Treacheries of English Vocabulary), 1928.

Examples and Observations

  • "You'd think you can figure out the meanings if you come across the words embarazada, tasten, and stanza in Spanish, German, and Italian respectively. But watch out! They actually mean 'pregnant,' 'to touch or feel,' and 'room' in the respective languages."
    (Anu Garg, Another Word a Day. Wiley, 2005)
  • "At the simplest level there can be trivial confusion between everyday words such as French carte (card, menu, etc.) and English cart or German aktuell (at present) and English actual. But more problematic conflicts of meaning arise with trade names. America's General Motors had to find a new name for their Vauxhall Nova car in Spain when it was discovered that no va in Spanish means 'doesn't go.'"
    (Ned Halley, Dictionary of Modern English Grammar. Wordsworth, 2005)
  • "An example of a false cognate is the English jubilation and the Spanish jubilación. The English word means 'happiness,' while the Spanish one means 'retirement, pension (money).'"
    (Christine A. Hult and Thomas N. Huckin, The New Century Handbook. Allyn and Bacon, 1999)

Interference: Four Types of False Friends

  • "Interference is the phenomenon that we experience when linguistic structures that we have already learnt interfere with our learning new structures. Interference exists in all areas—for example, in pronunciation and spelling. Incidentally, interference exists not only between two languages, but also within one language. In semantics, one therefore refers to intralingual and interlingual false friends. Since a word may change its meaning in the course of time, this problem cannot be viewed only in the light of the current (i.e., synchronic) situation. Because the historical (i.e., diachronic) development must also be taken into consideration, there are altogether four types of false friends."
    (Christoph Gutknecht, "Translation." The Handbook of Linguistics, ed. by Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller. Blackwell, 2003)

French, English, and Spanish: Faux Amis

  • "[I]n order to illustrate how deceitful false friends may become, the best we can do is to resort to the term false friends itself . . . As I have just pointed out, false friends is a calque from the French term faux amis, although this translation is at least unsuitable, despite being lexicalised now. And the reason is that treacherous, disloyal or unfaithful friends are not usually called false friends and falsos amigos, but bad friends and malos amigos in English and Spanish, respectively.
    "Yet, the term false friends is the most widely spread in the literature on this linguistic phenomenon . . ."
    (Pedro J. Chamizo-Domínguez, Semantics and Pragmatics of False Friends. Routledge, 2008)

Old English and Modern English

  • "The vocabulary of Old English presents a mixed picture, to those encountering it for the first time. . . Particular care must be taken with words which look familiar, but whose meaning is different in Modern English. An Anglo-Saxon wif was any woman, married or not. A ​fugol 'fowl' was any bird, not just a farmyard one. Sona ('soon') meant 'immediately,' not 'in a little while;' won (wan) meant 'dark,' not 'pale'; and faest (fast) meant 'firm, fixed,' not 'rapidly.' These are 'false friends,' when translating out of Old English."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Words Are False Friends?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/false-friends-words-term-1690852. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Words Are False Friends? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/false-friends-words-term-1690852 Nordquist, Richard. "What Words Are False Friends?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/false-friends-words-term-1690852 (accessed May 30, 2023).