When false friends get you into trouble

No. I’m not talking about real people, here. Although, I’ve had some friends who didn’t turn out to be real ones, but perhaps I can talk about them in another blog post. Here I want to talk about those words which look or sound similar in two different languages, but they mean different things. They are called ‘false friends’.

Imagine you’re in a foreign Country. You are learning the language of that Country, and clearly you don’t know everything. What can help in any situation when you don’t know the relevant words is: context and similarities between the new language and your own mother tongue.

These similarities are life-savers. There are many between Spanish and Italian, or French and Italian. But when it comes to English and Italian, sometimes they’re a bit tricky and you have to be a little careful, as you could end up getting the wrong end of the stick.

The first time I came to Britain, I was only 17 years old. It was summer and the weather in London wasn’t particularly good. I didn’t carry a dictionary with me as I made a conscious decision to try and understand new words by their context. So, while walking about London with my friend (who spoke no English), I would often see the words “Estate Agents” in shop windows. The word agents was fine as it’s similar to Italian, but the word estate kind of puzzled me. In Italian estate means summer. So I used to think “these guys are probably selling something to do with the summer, and it looks like it’s houses. Some of them have gardens, some haven’t . Are they properties abroad in sunny places?”

So I kind of guessed they were selling houses, but not the right ones.

My very first boss in London, Giancarlo, was always grumpy and stressed out. I shared an office with Tony, a lovely Irish guy, who often spoke to me and taught me a lot of new words in English. One morning he told me that Giancarlo was miserable. In Italian the word miserabile means extremely poor.   I disagreed with him, I told him that someone who drove a Mercedes and wore Armani suits could not be miserable. So we debated for half an hour on the subject until I realized that something wasn’t quite right.

The most confusing of all, for me, was the use of sensitive and sensible in English. They are a double-whammy. Sensible sounds like the word sensibile and in Italian it means sensitive. On the other hand, the word sensitive, which could be mistaken for sensitivo, in Italian means someone with a sixth sense.

You can only imagine the conversation I was once having with my boss, where he told me: “Dr X is very sensitive about these documents. We need to be sensible about them. They must be kept under lock and key.” I got the gist that the stuff was confidential and I wasn’t supposed to photocopy and spread the papers through the whole department, but the whole sensitive/sensibility thing went over my head at the time.

Perhaps the saddest misunderstanding of all was the black bins in London, with the wording “Litter” which sounded so much like “Letter”. I just assumed that is where you posted your cards and letters. I have sent a few post-cards from there, from lovely London all the way to Sardinia, and my cards never reached their destination. I blamed the Italian postal service at the time, but I later realized that I was the slow one.

Have you ever misunderstood words, either in your own language or in another language? I’d like to hear your stories.


image courtesy of esi.info

11 thoughts on “When false friends get you into trouble”

  1. I am German and some years ago when travelling in the States we were looking for a room for the night. In German you ask: Haben sie ein Zimmer frei? So, while free and frei have the same roots, they have slightly different meanings. And when my friend asked at the reception: Have you got a free room the guy (it was the owner) got really angry!

    • I can imagine, Susanne, that the receptionist thought you wanted a ‘free’ room, meaning one that you didn’t have to pay for?
      Perhaps the word he was expecting you to use was ‘available’ rather than ‘free’, but anyone who is a bit smart should have worked it out.
      So, it wasn’t your friend’s fault, on this occasion, but the guy at the hotel who was being a little dopey 😉

  2. Great subject Martina!
    I have a good one as well. When I was doing my MSc in the UK, my Greek friend was giving a presentation about what she was working on and she used the word “pathetic” to describe a system. What she ment was “passive” but in Greek passive is “patheticos” which is similar to “pathetic”.
    12 yearls have passed since then and we are still using this incident as a joke between us.
    Take care!

    • This is really funny, Anna. I can just imagine the expression on the faces of people listening to your friend’s presentation.
      A “pathetic system”, God knows what must have been going through their heads…

      Thank you for sharing this with us 🙂

  3. Hi Martina, you found a very interesting matter. In this moment I remember not a really false friend but… I’m telling: I was in NYC for may honeymoon in January. My wife was pregnant and cold. So I called the reception to ask to have another blanket; I left a message in the box. I said: “Can you take us another carpet, please?”. A few minutes after an astonished (?) receptionist called us to know what kind of carpet. I said again about my wife chills and, finally, one of them arrived at our door with my second… carpet!

    • I am still laughing, Francesco, as I’m trying to imagine your poor pregnant wife, while you try to cover her with a carpet.
      I can’t believe that those guys actually brought you a carpet, especially when you explained your wife was cold.
      What were they thinking??!?

  4. I love these examples – as I recall, there are a few languages where the word for ‘pregnant’ can get foreigners into trouble, too.
    Believe it or not, there are loads of false friends between American and British English.
    Suspenders, rubbers, pickles and pants all have huge potential for chaos. A female American friend of mine once asked a British guy what colour pants she should wear for an important work meeting…

  5. That just happened this morning.
    My colleagues and I were talking about Christmas holidays, and I was telling them how much I love hanging out with my numerous parents at Christmas, when we’re all together at the same table having fun.

    After a couple of hours one of my colleagues approached me with discretion asking if he may know more about my life, as he was pretty curious.
    Turned out he thought such a story about me, being traded places at the hospital nurse with some other baby, and therefore having two pairs of parents: the natural one and the “adopted” one.

    Of course I immediately detected the issue, as “parents” in Italian means “relatives”, so while talking without taking care of my thoughts I used an incorrect word.

    False friends and colleagues-worried carriers!

    • This is funny and it reminds me of a conversation in my early days in Britain. It went something like this:
      Me: There are always lots of people at our birthday parties at home, because I have many parents.
      Friend: Do you?
      Me: Yes, I have 22 cousins. Three brothers and one sisters.
      Friend: And how many parents to you have?
      Me: Lots. Too many, I can’t even count them.


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