Wednesday, 20 June 2012

German False Friends

A linguistic 'false friend' is a word you come across in a foreign language that looks almost exactly like an English word, and you think 'ah yes, I know what that means!'. However, its true meaning can be very different from what you think.

For example, the noun gift is something that is 'given' in English, and often something nice. 'Das Gift' in German though is 'poison'; a gift as a present is 'das Geschenk'. Curiously though, something given as a marriage dowry is in German 'ein Mitgift'.

Other northern European languages have a similar confusion: in Sweden, Norwegian and Danish 'gift' means 'poison', but also 'married'! There is surely some root word that used to have the sense of something given to someone else, but in English this has come to mean a pleasant thing, whereas elsewhere the given thing is either associated only with a bride that is give away, or something to be distrusted.

Another type of false friend are English and other foreign words that have been absorbed into German, but don't mean what they do in their host country. A few that spring to mind are 'das Handy' (a mobile phone), 'das Evergreen' (a golden-oldie song, not a fir tree), 'der Oldtimer' (a vintage car), and 'das Menü' (a daily special in a restaurant, not the list of all items which is 'die Speisekarte').

Sometimes these words have become generic terms rather than specifics, so in the supermarket you might look for 'marmalade' expecting a preserve made from oranges to spread on your morning toast, only to find that all jams are 'die Marmelade'. Similarly all sweet fizzy drinks are in German 'die Limonade', not just the lemonade it sounds like (but don't forget, eine Limone is a lime, not a lemon ('Zitrone')).

Oh, and thinking about marmalade again, don't confuse 'das Präservativ' as being a jam or other preserve; it is the German word for a condom!

Here are a few more false friends that might cause confusion:

If something is aktuell, such as 'aktuelle Informationen', it isn't the 'actual' information (rather than something that isn't really). It means 'up-to-date' or 'topical'. The proper German adjective you really want to mean 'actually' is in effect 'eigentlich'. 


bald means 'soon', not follically challenged ('kahl' or the amusing 'glazköpfig'). So 'bis bald!' means 'see ya soon', not 'until your hair drops out'.


If a dog is brav it is well-behaved, not 'brave' (which is 'mutig'). 'Sei brav!' means 'be a good boy/girl!'.


bekommen means 'to get', not 'to become' (which is 'werden'). So if you say 'ich bekomme einen Zug' you are getting a train, not becoming one.

Ein Chef or eine Chefin is a boss of anything (as in French), not just head of a kitchen ('Chefkoch/Chefköchin' or 'Küchenmeister/Küchenmeisterin' if you are talking about Jamie Oliver).


delikat means 'delicious', not 'delicate' ('empfindlich', 'zart', or 'fein'). The English loan-word Delikatessen can only make sense if you know this!

School-child favorite now: eine Fahrt is a journey, not a fart ('Furz'). And Vater is 'Father'. Stop sniggering at the back there!


fast is 'almost', not something that is moving with speed ('schnell'). And whilst we are at it, fasten doesn't mean to tie something together ('anheften'), but to abstain from something for religious reasons ('to fast').

Something that is genial is not pleasant and enjoyable ('angenehm'), but brilliant and ingenious. Stephen Fry is of course both.

A Gymnasium is a secondary school, not a place to work out in ('Sporthalle'). This isn't so easy to confuse if you hear it spoken, as the 'Gym' part is pronounced not like 'jim' but 'gum'.

Ein Hut is not a small habitable shack ('Hütte') but a 'hat'. Doubly confusing is that the plural of 'Hut' is 'Hüte'. When it comes to deciphering the town East of Berlin Eisenhüttenstadt you can really get your knickers in a twist, especially if you mistake 'Eis' ('Ice') with 'Eisen' ('steel'): town of ice huts (igloos?) ? - town of ice-hats? - town of iron hats? - town of iron huts? Actually Eisenhütten are iron foundries. The town was originally founded with the name Stalinstadt, and of course the dictator's alias Stalin coincidently comes from the Russian word for steel.

If someone says they have seen an Igel in their garden, they don't mean an 'eagle' ('Adler'), but a hedgehog. So now you won't get a strange image in your head if they say they have been feeding it bread and milk.

If something is komisch it is more likely strange, weird or odd, rather than comical ('lustig'). That said,  Komische Oper is neither odd nor comical, just not very serious.

komfortabel flat isn't necessarily 'comfortable' to live in ('bequem'), it is downright luxurious.

das Krankenhaus is not a place for nutjobs ('cranks', in German 'Spinner'), but is a hospital. This is the only German word my Mum picked up from our first visit to Germany, and still causes her to giggle when she sees it. Bless!

Eine Meinung is an opinion, not a meaning ('Bedeutung').

Mist is dung or bull-shit, not a damp meteorological phenomenon ('Nebel').

I don't know in what context you would call a woman a 'nut' ('Nuss'), but definitely don't get it mixed up with the German word Nutte, which means a slag or whore.

If something is described as prägnant it is concise or succinct, not in the family way ('schwanger').

A Puff is curiously a brothel. Maybe because a lot of huffing and puffing goes on there.

Ein Rat is a council or piece of advice, not the furry rodent that spreads the Plague ('Ratte'). Hence a Rathaus is where the mayor met with his advisors in times gone by, not a description of the vermin who infest the town hall chambers.

If somebody is sympathisch it doesn't mean they have a shoulder to cry on or are sympathetic with your situation, though they might be. It means they are likable, friendly, and congenial. A 'ganz sympathischer Typ' is a really nice dude.

tasten means 'to touch', not to taste (which is 'schmeken'). A Tastatur is not a 'taste of the door', but a keyboard.

If someone is going on about a Wand, they are not a Harry Potter fan (his wand is a 'Zauberstab'); they are talking about a wall.

And last but not least, though the verb wichsen is pronounced the same as 'vixen', the verb means to do that thing your parents said would make you go blind. Not to be confused with Fuchs, which is a fox


Confusing false friends is generally not a big deal. Now and then though it can throw up mis-interpretations to send you reeling. For example, at the moment in Germany a group of Salafist Muslims has a campaign aiming to hand out 25 million free copies of a German translation of the Qur'an in order to educate non-believers. Unfortunately the German exhortation to READ! is LIES! (from lesen, 'to read'). Oh my, oh my.



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