False friends have developed in many languages over the years, for various reasons. For example, in some cases, the two false friends have similar origins, perhaps having both been borrowed from a third language, but their meanings have deviated over time. In other cases, however, the words could have completely different origins, but because pronunciations and spellings shift gradually, they have both ended up looking or sounding similar.

False friends, or bilingual homophones are words in two or more languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.

The origin of the term is a shortened version of the expression “false friend of a translator”, the English translation of a French expression (Frenchfaux amis du traducteur) introduced by linguists Maxime Kœssler and Jules Derocquigny in their 1928 book: “False Friends, or the Pitfalls of the English Vocabulary” (“Les Faux Amis ou les trahisons du vocabulaire anglais”) with a sequel, “Autres Mots Anglais Perfides”.

Sources of confusion

There are some clear sources of confusion in relation to the use of false friends. We may distinguish a category of sources related to behavioral aspects of the speaker and another one concerning the linguistic approach. Thus, in terms of the human element, it is first of all a question of wrong choice of words due to directness and spontaneity of conversations. It occurs because of the normal tendency to use the most familiar words that come to one’s mind when talking, as an unconscious and uncontrolled means of producing fluent communication. This comes really natural and unnoticed because of the similarity with the mother tongue of the speaker. It is doubtless that in such situations the fact that these words exist might be considered somewhat helpful. The use of some of these words presents the advantage of better fluency and higher speed. Of course, this holds true for the mistakes that are not very dangerous, neither creating too much confusion nor impeding the real comprehension of the general facts communicated. Of the same category, laziness is another cause for the production of false friends. Even aware that something may be inappropriate, too easy, or too much alike, the speaker indulges in using that term anyhow as opposed to the more tiresome activity of checking it up, though time and situation (e.g. not conversation but writing – less demanding) would allow. In terms of the linguistic issue, etymology is the first responsible. These words may have a common root, from an original language that both languages in question derive from or have borrowed and assimilated the particular word from. Some similar meanings can be still preserved, more or less, in both languages, as primary meaning or, on the contrary, as figurative or secondary. But new meanings can develop and there are restricted or enlarged meanings that influence the future development of the word in one language as distinct from the other. Distinct alterations of meanings, the development of a polysemy, in certain circumstances, or of a simply different particularization would bring about such confusions with these words. There might, unquestionably, appear situations of mere coincidence, when there is no connection between the two words, but a misunderstanding will still occur because of a similitude – by chance – in form or pronunciation.


English and Romanian vocabularies do not have too many words in common as they derive from different ancient languages, still the Roman influence has affected the Anglo-Saxon base of English. On the other hand, subsequent borrowings from other languages may have had the same effect of assimilating words much alike. Some words may have a very close meaning to the real one, the wrong usage will have no major consequence in understanding the speaker: for example: cake – chec; carpet – carpetă; sanity – sănătate, etc.

English – German False Friends 

English Word German Translation False Friend Real Meaning
Ambulance Krankenwagen Ambulanz Emergency room / A&E department
Hut Hütte Hut Hat
Stadium Stadion Stadium Stage
Where Wo Wer Who

Ways of Avoiding False Friends

Given the fact that such words are tricky, we should raise awareness of the danger of words sounding familiar. This is easier to achieve when the assigned task is translation, as it can be clearly mentioned that a certain number of words are “false friends” and have to be identified and the mistakes can be thus avoided by use of synonyms. However, this procedure, of trying to find a synonymic expression for the words that seem too close to someone’s mother tongue, might be an effective way to avoid false friends, at any time. Nevertheless, direct, live translation or face to face conversations are much more difficult to consciously and permanently control so deeply as to be capable of instantly recognizing, becoming aware of, and quickly finding a replacement for a word that might be problematical. Such an endeavor not only impedes fluency and clarity of communication, unless the person who is talking is a very skillful speaker of English as a foreign language, but it proves impossible for the ordinary speakers and learners. To permanently be aware of mistakes is not an eligible manner of successfully completing a conversational situation. The danger of over-caring lies both in this and in the fact that, ultimately, some mistakes related to the use of “false friends” can be more charming or can be understood more easily. After all, the true meaning of your sayings can be, sometimes, more accurately grasped by the collocutor, who might himself/ herself be aware of the similarity that triggered your inappropriate choice of words, and it will bother him/her less than a slow, time-consuming, disrupted and stumbling flow of too-carefully (and maybe still unsuccessfully) selected words, resulting in a tiresome and poor excuse of a dialogue. Least that can be done, the nearest to the best solution, would be teaching the most commonly-met false friends during English classes, the way all other troublesome English idioms or differences between British and American English are. Thus, awareness is ensured and that should be a first step in avoiding embarrassing conversational situations and in overcoming the aversion towards speaking- at any rate, the one caused by lack of this particular information.


Is the occurrence of the words known as “false friends” a real problem? When the word sounds forced or the communication alien, yes, it becomes a nuisance for regular speakers of English. Academic world and elevate language users shall not allow such flaws. But, apart from the fact that it helps fluency and self-confidence with speakers of poorer English, giving them a sense of ability to communicate, the whole process of using a word similar in meaning to some in the mother tongue, instead of the accurate one, may be seen as part of the tendency of globalization and uniformity of language.


Dieser Beitrag ist auch verfügbar in: Rumänisch Englisch Französisch