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Ausgabe August 2007

False friends Words that are identical or similar in two related languages are called cognates. Cognates can come into existence when two or more languages evolve from the same language. They can also come into existence when languages borrow words from other languages. Cognates can be quite helpful to speakers of a new language because they allow the speaker to use many of the words he already knows. His vocabulary is larger right from the start. Over the centuries, however, the meanings of words can drift. In addition, two languages may borrow words from a third and attach different meanings to them. This process can result in cognates that have completely different meanings in the two languages. The learner of a new language must be careful: words he may think mean the same thing based on their similarity can often have unexpected or even unfortunate meanings. Cognates which may deceive the speaker in this way are known as false friends.

Common ancestry English was “born” around 500 BC as a variation of West Germanic. Having a common parent language, it’s no surprise that English and German have so many words in common. It has been estimated that as many as 35% of the non-technical words in English come from its German roots. Words like bring, find and come are direct ancestors of their German parents bringen, finden and kommen. Words like Haus and Musik have remained unchanged except for differences resulting from the spelling rules of the two languages. A common ancestry isn’t the only reason why false friends exist, however. German,

like any other growing language, likes to borrow words from other languages. English words – especially modern technical words like Chatting, Computer and Internet – are now found in Duden. Older loan words like Smoking and Oldtimer have had time to slowly drift away from their original English meanings and take on their modern German ones.

The boss Both English and German have historically borrowed heavily from French, with one difference: when English borrows from French, it has a tendency to modify the meaning slightly; when German borrows from French, the meaning usually remains the same. Take the word chef, for example, one of the most often-used (and incorrectly used) false friends. The German word Chef has retained its French meaning: head of something, boss or leader. English, however, didn’t borrow Chef directly, but rather Chef de Cuisine (boss of the kitchen), and later shortened it to chef. Thus in English, chef means “boss of the kitchen” or “head cook”. Chef is now a false friend between English and French and English and German, but it is a true cognate between German and French. Well, you might now be thinking “So what? This is just a load of linguistic trivia. Who cares?” Well, you should! One of the most common mistakes made by German speakers of English is the use of the word Chef. For a nativeEnglish speaker receiving a German visitor or speaking with a German on the phone, comments like these are commonplace:

I’ll have to discuss that with my chef and get back to you.




False friends

Feedback geben und entgegennehmen

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Our chef hasn’t decided yet. Our chefs will be meeting at the end of the month to discuss it. My chef told me that you may be able to help. And now consider that, while it’s standard practise for Germans to learn English, it’s not common for English speakers to learn German. Most native-English speakers don’t know a second language, and if they do they are often unaware that false friends exist. Your conversation partner hears your statement a bit differently: I’ll have to discuss that with my head cook and get back to you! If you’ve been negotiating sales terms or technical details about a product, the effect is especially ridiculous. Your colleague may think: Who is this guy? Does he discuss everything with his head cook? Well, maybe. Some people can’t make a decision without consulting an astrologer. Why not a cook?



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Simple future

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OWAD Business English Trainer – August 2007

False friends between German and English Here is a table of false friends frequently encountered in business situations: German

English translation


suitable, appropriate

Not to be German meaning confused with adequate ausreichend gut für etwas

Akte aktuell Beamer Billion Chef City delikat

file current projector trillion boss city centre delicious, gentle, sensitive

act actual beamer billion chef city delicate

eventuell Fazit Fehler Gift Handy kompetent

possibly the bottom line mistake poison mobile /cell phone highly qualified or capable

Konkurrenz konsequent konsequent konservieren kontrollieren Konzept Lohn mondän ordinär Paket Personal Petroleum prinzipiell Probe Prospekt Provision prüfen rentabel Rezept selbstbewusst sensibel seriös sich blamieren sich wundern Smoking spenden

competition consistently consistent to preserve to check, to monitor draft, notes, copy, plan wages, salary glamorous, flashy vulgar package personnel, staff parrafin oil, kerosene (AE) fundamentally rehearsal brochure commission to check profitable prescription self-confident sensitive respectable to make a fool of oneself to be surprised tuxedo or dinner jacket to donate

Stock Stoff Sympathisch überhören Warenhaus

stick material nice, likeable to not hear or ignore department store

Tat, Gesetz tatsächlich, wirklich Fahrzeug von BMW Milliarde Küchenchef Großstadt empfindlich, zerbrechlich, fein, heikel, präzis eventually schließlich facet Aspekt failure Mißerfolg, Versagen gift Geschenk handy griffbereit, praktisch competent durchschnittlich qualifiziert oder fähig concurrence Einverständnis consequently folglich consequent daraus folgend to conserve einsparen to control führen, leiten, regulieren concept Begriff, Idee loan Darlehen mundane alltäglich ordinary gewöhnlich packet Päckchen, Schachtel personal persönlich pertroleum Erdöl principal haupt-, hauptsächtlich probe Untersuchung prospect Aussicht provision Versorgung to prove beweisen rentable mietbar receipt Quittung self-conscious befangen, gehemmt sensible vernünftig serious ernst to blame jemandem die Schuld geben to wonder sich fragen smoking Rauchen to spend Geld ausgeben, Zeit verbringen stock Vorrat, Bestand, Aktie stuff Sachen sympathetic verständnisvoll, mitfühlend to overhear etwas zufällig mithören warehouse Lagerhaus

False friends in English Everyone knows American English is a bit different from British English. The two languages are extremely similar, but over the centuries quite a few differences have developed, not just in spelling. Watch out for these false friends: False friend Asian

to blow off



casualty chips compensation

marinara restroom


to table an issue through


to wash up

Compound words can be false friends Because English is a Germanic language, many of its basic words are similar to those in German. This includes numerous prepositions like in, by, under, on, etc., as well as words like see, hear, go, make, etc. The German equivalents in, bei, unter, an, sehen, hören, gehen, and machen are instantly recognisable when reading text. The problem arises because both languages rely heavily on compounding to create common words, especially German. One is tempted to translate a word like übersehen as to oversee. However, in English the correct word is to overlook. To oversee in German is überwachen or beaufsichtigen. Another example is Nachdenken, which one may be tempted to translate as afterthought. However the correct translation is reflection, and an afterthought in German is a nachträgliche Überlegung. Unternehmer in English can be entrepreneur, contractor or operator, but certainly not undertaker. Undertaker in German is Leichenbestatter !


American English

British English

someone from East someone from India, Asia or continental Bangladesh, Pakistan Southeast Asia or Sri Lanka to break wind, to fart to not show up to (both colloquial) meet someone as agreed a type of chest of a type of writing table drawers a government agency vehicle for transthe transportation porting a baby in a of goods or the price laying position paid for the transport someone who has someone who has been killed been injured thin slices of fried French fries potato payment and benefits paid to individuals for the work they do payment to individuals to compensate for injury or wrong-doing sauce containing no sauce containing meat seafood a room in a public a room for staff to place containing a take their breaks in toilet someone who asks lawyer others for money to be used for a purpose to suspend from to offer for consideraconsideration or tion or discussion discussion in relation to time: in relation to time: up to, until until at least, maybe later toilet (considered toilet, but very often rude) the room containing a toilet to clean the hands to wash the dishes or before eating food clean the hands after eating food


sich entwickeln

• to drift

abweichen, hier: sich verändern

• ancestry


• ridiculous


• colloquial


• compound


• equivalent


• to be tempted

versucht sein

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E xt r a - B latt

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False friends  

Geschäftsbesuch aus den USA, eine Videokonferenz mit den Kollegen aus London, eine Geschäftsreise nach Japan. Nur mit solidem Englisch hinte...

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