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False friends in translation

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False friends are words from two different languages that have a great similarity in shape but whose meanings are different. When they have some common meanings, they are “partial false friends“. For example, in Italian, ricetta means “recipe (for kitchen)” but also “order (medical)” (as Rezept in German). When all their meanings are different, they are “complete false friends“, as cantina meaning only wine cellar and pub in Italian.

From the etymological point of view, we must distinguish the false friends who are cognates (due to linguistic borrowing) of those unrelated words (that is to say, homonyms or homophones).


A language A borrows a word to a language B. Later, the word changes its meaning in the language B. Or two different languages use the same term from another language, but each in a different direction. A speaker of the language A risk of falling into the trap of the false friend when he learns the B language and meet with the word in question.

Within this category, there are “complete false friends” of “partial false friends”.

Complete false friends

Complete false friends (or absolute false friends, strict false friends) have a different meaning in spite of appearances. For example, “opportunité” in French (character of what is appropriate to do) has a different meaning of “opportunity” in English (“right time for action”). This error in induction force is characteristic of false friends. Other examples:

  • actually is different from “actuellement” in French that means currently;
  • eventually is different from “éventuellement” in French that means possibly;
  • to support is different from “supporter” in French that means  to bear;
  • “sensible” in French refers to a person whose feelings are exacerbated, which is sensitive to pain, or positive or negative emotions, while in English it translates this concept by the word sensitive,. while sensible English translates into French as “raisonnable”.

Because of ancient common roots, English and French languages have evolved differently and complete false friends are frequent.

Partial false friends

The partial false friends have both equivalent meanings and different meanings. Thus, in English, the word agenda (in Latin “things intended to be made”), may designate by metonymy, as in French, a time management tool or, as in Latin, objectives, an action program (which is part of the agenda in the French meaning).

False cognates

In some cases, false friends are just homonyms that have no relation to the original words. The disambiguation (or sometimes homophony) is purely coincidental. For simple statistical reasons, these coincidences appear more often between words with a small number of letters. Examples:

  • Fast in English means “almost” in German.
  • Openbaar in Dutch, means “public” and not open bar. Thus we find a Openbaar Ministerie (which does not regulate nights of trapping in alcohol but is equivalent to the Ministry of Justice) and Openbaar Vervoer (“public transport”).

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