A Guide to Recognizing False Friends

Posted by Lindsay Geoffroy


What is a “false friend,”? Is it someone who pretends to like you, but who then gossips about you behind your back (frenemy)? Well, this is a blog about language and translation, so the term “false friend” here has a different meaning.

False friends are words in two different languages that look very similar but differ greatly in meaning. Sometimes, the two words share a similar etymology – other times they do not. This can cause confusion when learning a new language, and can also be the impetus for comedic misunderstandings between speakers of two different tongues. Let’s explore the concept of false friends!

False Friends Around the Globe

There are false friends between several language pairs around the world. Below are a few examples.

English-Spanish: “Rope” in English – “Ropa” (clothing) in Spanish; “Bomber” in English – “Bombero” (firefighter) in Spanish; “Nude” in English – “Nudo” (knot) in Spanish.

English-French: “Bras” in English – “Bras” (arms) in French; “Grape” in English – “Grappe” (bunch) in French; “Library” in English – “Librarie” (bookstore) in French.

Fun fact: false friends are called “faux amis” in French!

German-English: “Bald” (soon) in German – “Bald” in English; “Gift” (poison) in German – “Gift” in English; “Winken” (to wave) in German – “Wink” in English.

Fun fact: English is a Germanic language; therefore, many English and German words may look similar or have similar etymological roots!

Russian-Turkish: “Durak” (fool) in Russian – “Durak” (bus stop) in Turkish; “Saray” (barn) in Russian – “Saray” (palace) in Turkish.

How Does This Relate to Translation and Localization?

As previously stated, false friends can often cause issues when learning a language or when interpreting/translating a language. If an English speaker is trying to learn Spanish or vice-versa, the false friends between languages may trip up the student, who could see a word which looks familiar but has a completely different definition.

Even if a speaker is conversational and not fluent in a language, false friends can cause issues. This BBC site allows travelers and multilingual users to post humorous stories stemming from the misinterpretation of false friend words and phrases.

In interpretation and translation, it is important to have a keen eye and look out for false friends in order to avoid errors, even if they are funny. Lionbridge employs top-tier translators who can spot false friends from a mile away. To see how we can help with your translation and localization needs, visit us here.