False friends denote words that look the same in both German and English, but carry radically different meanings. Dissimilar from false cognates, false friends may lead to embarrassment, misunderstandings or sudden mirth. Learn how to eliminate them.
Understanding the Trap
False friends are deceptively similar words that make the student of German misread the intention of a sentence merely because she relies on the English meaning of a similarly spelled word. Some false friends look identical while others merely sound identical.
False Friends: English/German
Bald: Soon or Bald?
In German, ‘bald’ refers to an action that will take place soon. In English, ‘bald’ refers to a lack of hair. The German terminology for the latter is ‘kahl’ or ‘glatzköpfig.’
Gift: Deadly Poison or Present?
The German ‘Gift’ references a usually deadly poison. English speakers understand a ‘gift’ to be a present. When translating ‘present’ into German, the correct term is ‘Geschenk.’
Allee: Alley or Boulevard?
A German ‘Allee’ refers to a (usually tree-lined) avenue or even a boulevard. The English ‘alley’ is a tiny roadway between houses that frequently does not feature a sidewalk and is more useful for utility access than pedestrian use. This kind of alley is known in German as a ‘Durchgang.’ The more old-fashioned ‘Gasse" intimates a narrow road of oftentimes historical importance.
Rat: Council or Rodent?
Germans understand a ‘Rat’ to be a ‘council,’ such as a city council. English language speakers know a ‘rat’ to be a small rodent. This same rodent -- in German – is known as a ‘Ratte.’
False friends such as these cannot be eliminated with simple rules but merely by memorizing the translations.
False Friends English/Dutch: The Sign Really Says, "Mommy, (I want) that one, that one, that one. Please."
False Friends in Pseudo-Anglicism
Another issue that affects the learner of German – when coming from an English-speaking background – is the list of anglicized words. A prime example is the German noun ‘Handy’ that refers to a mobile phone. In English the term is more likely to refer to a craftsman or an item that is suitable for use at just the right time. In this sense, the meaning of the word has been borrowed by Germans to describe an item for which English speakers already have a noun.
Somewhat more morbid is the use of the term ‘Body Bag.’ Germans understand this term to refer to an elongated shoulder bag that is actually worn across the body. In English, a ‘body bag’ refers to an item commonly used by a coroner when collecting a dead body.
Tips on eliminating false friends in German at this juncture must include the avoidance of all pseudo-anglicisms. Until the student has a working understanding of how these terms are used in daily conversation, they add confusion to the discourse.
As outlined in “False Cognates in Spanish," the easiest way to learn the differences and similarities between the false friends is to merely memorize the terms and their meanings. Once the student is certain that she understands the differences, the Fun Trivia site(1) offers a fun quiz that covers German false friends.