Navigating ‘false friends’ in German and French communications – our top 10

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language before, it’s likely you’ll have come across a fair few ‘false friends’!


What is a false friend?


A false friend is a word or phrase that sounds or is spelt the same as in your native language but has a totally different meaning in the other language.


There are plenty of examples and while they are certainly amusing, they could potentially lead to some rather awkward or embarrassing situations or even cause offence.


You might think the German language is particularly straightforward with its English-sounding words like ‘Kaffee’ (coffee) and its very logical compound nouns like ‘Handschuh’ (hand + shoe = glove), but be warned! There are some words that are designed to trip you up.


We’ve put together a list of our top ten French and German false friends that everyone (not just translators!) should be aware of.


  1. Gift (German)

Before telling one of your German friends that you’re giving them a ‘gift’, make sure to check its meaning first – the German noun ‘Gift’ actually translates into English as ‘poison’! This is a classic false friend and one that you’ll need to be aware of if you don’t want to scare away any of your German colleagues, friends or family. If you do want to give someone a gift, the correct German translation is ‘Geschenk’.


  1. Rat (German)

Following a similar train of thought, you might feel shocked or even disgusted if you hear that your German friend wants to thank you for your ‘Gift’ by giving you some ‘Rat’… but don’t panic, they’re only trying to help! The English translation of the German word ‘Rat’ is ‘advice’. If you ever need to know the correct German translation for the pesky rodent, it’s ‘Ratte’.


  1. Handy (German)

If you want to talk to your German friends about how useful you found the guidebook they lent you for your summer holiday, don’t assume that the correct German word is ‘Handy’. This word actually translates into English as ‘mobile phone’ (and is pronounced more like ‘hendy’). This should be an easy one to remember, as mobile phones do come in handy a lot of the time! There is some debate around the origins of the German word. Some believe it’s a short version of the early German word ‘Handfunktelefon’ while others say it came from ‘handie-talkie’ – a handheld walkie talkie that was used in World War 2. Either way, it’s shorter and easier to say than the German alternative: ‘Mobiltelefon’. If you do want to describe something as useful, you can use the German word ‘nützlich’.


  1. Mist (German)

Be careful if you want to comment on the weather in German. You might think the German word ‘Mist’ can easily be used to describe the fog in the sky on one of those grey winter days. However, you’re actually more likely to hear Germans using this word when they’re annoyed. ‘Mist’ can be translated into English as ‘rubbish’, or less politely as ‘crap’! It’s also the German translation of ‘manure’. If you want to talk about the fog or mist in the sky, use the German word ‘Nebel’.


  1. Chef (German)

If you want to pay your compliments to the chef in a German-speaking country, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you could use the German word ‘Chef’. Unfortunately, this is another false friend that catches people out! The English translation of the word ‘Chef’ is actually ‘boss’ or ‘manager’. If you want to thank the chef for a delicious meal, you’d need the word ‘Koch’ or the feminine form ‘Köchin’.


  1. Journée (French)

If you’re speaking to a French person about your recent travels and want to tell them about the journey, make sure not to use the French word ‘journée’. Although this certainly looks like a French version of the word ‘journey’, it actually translates into English as ‘day’. If somebody wishes you a ‘bonne journée’, they’re not wishing you well on your travels, they’re simply wishing you a nice day. The correct French translation for the word ‘journey’ is ‘voyage’, hence ‘bon voyage’ – a term that we often use in English as well.


  1. Blessé (French)

Make sure you brush up on your French vocabulary before declaring to someone how lucky and ‘blessed’ you are. While the French word ‘blessé’ (past participle of the verb ‘blesser’) might seem like the obvious choice, you’d actually be saying something that’s rather unfortunate instead – that you’re injured. This false friend trips people up quite often. The correct French translation for the verb ‘to bless’ is ‘bénir’.


  1. Passer (French)

Another French verb that catches a lot of English speakers out is ‘passer’ in the phrase ‘passer un examen’. An English speaker might be thrilled to hear this news, thinking that they’ve passed an exam. However, somewhat confusingly, ‘passer un examen’ simply means ‘to take an exam’. The French verb ‘réussir’ is the one you’ll need to listen out for to find out if you’ve passed or not. A very cruel false friend!


  1. Déception (French)

As you’ve seen so far, false friends can be very deceiving. You might want to talk about this in French using the word ‘déception’. However, this is a deceiving word in itself. ‘Déception’ actually means ‘disappointment’. Both terms have negative connotations but they’re not exactly interchangeable. If you want to use the correct French word for ‘deception’, it’s ‘tromperie’.


  1. Bras (French)

We’ll leave you with one last French false friend that could lead to some rather awkward encounters! If you see or hear the word ‘bras’ from a French speaker, don’t assume that they’re interested in your (or somebody else’s) underwear… ‘Bras’ is the French word for ‘arm’. The French language actually has some interesting idioms using this word, such as ‘les bras m’en tombent’, which translates literally as ‘my arms fall off’. This phrase translates along the lines of ‘I just cannot believe it’ and can be used if you’re really shocked by something and left speechless. If you do need to know the correct French translation for the undergarment, it’s ‘soutien-gorge’ – slightly longer than the English word!


We hope that you’ve enjoyed our list of German and French false friends and that you can use it to avoid any potentially awkward language encounters. We’d love to hear your favourites, including in other languages too.

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