Learning a new language can definitely be enjoyable, but is by no means child’s play. Ambitious language-learners are never happier than when they stumble across familiar-looking words here and there. At least, they would be if these were not in fact false friends, which are regularly the cause of a bemused smile, a confused glance or a blank look of dismay.
Whether it’s kindergarten, clever or angst, there are some English words that Germans, Austrians and Swiss can understand straight away. Things get a little trickier when talking about mobile phones, dresses and members of staff. These words are almost destined to result in misunderstandings.
“Ich werde zum Kaffee, bitte”
This classic false friend makes life difficult for some German and English schoolchildren. The German verb ‘bekommen’ (to receive) and the English verb ‘to become’ sound very similar, but do not mean the same thing at all. While “ich werde zum Kaffee, bitte” (which literally translates as “I become a coffee, please”) works just fine in German when you want to order a coffee, in English you’d be better off with “I’d like a coffee, please”.
Pickel or Essiggurke?
The English tend not to talk about pickles when describing blemished skin. A ‘pickle’ (or pickled gherkin) doesn’t in fact equate to “ein Pickel”, meaning a pimple, but to “eine Essiggurke”. And who would want to say that they have a huge pickled gherkin between their eyebrows? So when a German is talking about “ein Pickel”, the correct translation is actually a ‘pimple’.
Rock vs. rock
While “der Rock” denotes an item of clothing in German, in English a ‘rock’ is a stone or a boulder. If an English friend of yours is wearing a nice new “Rock”, you should complement her on her ‘skirt’, and not her ‘rock’.
Pony – animal, hairstyle or both?
In German, “Pony” most definitely means both animal and hairstyle. Things are a little different in English, though. A miniature horse can indeed be called a ‘pony’. Calling the shortened hair in front of your forehead a ‘pony’ in English, however, is a guarantee for confusion. This part of your hair is instead called a ‘fringe’ or ‘bangs’.
Sensibel is not the same as sensible
This duo of false friends represents a particularly confusing opportunity to make a blunder or two. Unfortunately, the German adjective “sensibel” does not translate as the almost identical ‘sensible’ (“vernünftig” or “wahrnehmbar” in German), but as ‘sensitive’.
Beware of false friends
The list of false friends is long. Even words that look like English can lead to misunderstandings – for example, “das Handy” equates to ‘cell phone’or ‘mobile phone’ in English, whereas ‘handy’ is only used to mean ‘useful’ (“handlich”) or ‘practical’ (“praktisch”). Even terms derived from Greek are potential traps. The German “Gymnasium” does not mean a secondary school in English, but a sports hall. Even if it is tempting to translate “das Personal” (staff or employees) with ‘personal’ (“persönlich”), or “der Brief"(a letter)with ‘brief’(“kurz”), there is one thing German and English pupils must always keep in mind: never overlook false friends when learning your vocabulary. That way you will be able to avoid even the most embarrassing translation errors, such as “prägnant” (‘concise’) and ‘pregnant’ (“schwanger”) or ‘mist’ (“Nebel”) and “Mist” (‘oh bother!’).
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