I do not think it means what you think it means.

Steven Depolo, Wikimedia Commons

Steven Depolo, Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes in the course of learning a new language it can seem like you’re in over your head.  You work on your vocabulary, you listen hard to the nuances of the accent. Even if you seem to do well with your flashcards, when it comes to listening to the language spoken, and especially when you’re being addressed by someone talking at lightning speed, you think you may drown. But then, miraculously, you hear a word you recognize! It’s as if someone has thrown you a lifesaver (they were a thing even before the candy). You grab hold, and experience momentary relief, but instead of bearing your weight, the ring seems to be sinking, even pulling you down with it. Aaargh!

You’ve just fallen victim to a false cognate. False friends, they’re sometimes called: words that seem to match words in your native tongue, but which mean something unexpected. It’s as if you’ve come up behind a friend at a party, laid your hand on his arm, only to find when he turns toward you that you’re staring at a stranger with a menacing expression.

Because German and English (the top two languages featured in our recent trip up north) are cousins, there are hundreds of genuine cognates, words that mean the same thing in each language, even if they’re spelled a bit differently. Hand is exactly the same; milch and milk both work great accompanying your plate of after-school cookies. Some cognates are close enough that with a little help from context, you can guess: grund and ground, wasser and water, haus and house.

There are some cognates that are fairly close, but differ in tone or emphasis. For instance, the German word lust does mean desire, but not necessarily that kind; it’s similar to the English, but without the leer.

False cognates, on the other hand, may not have been designed to mess with you, or set you up to be the source of amusement for all and sundry, but they’re really good at getting it done.

Here are ten words that appear both in English and in German (note that while all German nouns should be capitalized, I’m ignoring that fact here: Entschuldigung).

after, also, arm, art, bad, bald, bang, brand, brief, die

You know what they mean in English; here is what they mean in German. Any from the first list you can match with second list?

the, letter, fire or blaze, soon, kind or type, poor, thus or therefore, rectum, frightened or uneasy, bath

Here’s a picture hint for one of them:

Time-out, Carl Larsson, Wikimedia Commons

Time-out, Carl Larsson, Wikimedia Commons

Russell Lee, Wikimedia Commons

Russell Lee, Wikimedia Commons

If you guessed that “bad” is the German for bath, give yourself a pat on the back.

The others are here, with their counterparts.  The first column is the word in English and German, the second column is what Germans picture when they hear those words. You could also label them “what we’re thinking,” and “what they’re thinking.”

after rectum
also thus, therefore, um
arm poor
art kind, type
bald soon
bang frightened; uneasy
brand fire, blaze
brief letter
die the

Here are pictures for a few more, and then I’ll post a list at the end.
The word hell shows up in both English and German, and here are two ways to look at it:

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Hell, Wikimedia Commons

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Hell, Wikimedia Commons

Lykaestria, Wikimedia Commons

Lykaestria, Wikimedia Commons

Yup–hell in English is all fire and brimstone, and in German, it just means bright. Let’s try another. How about hut?

Muhammad Mahdi Karim, Wikimedia Commons

Muhammad Mahdi Karim, Wikimedia Commons

George Romney - Emma Hart in a Straw Hat, 1782-84, Wikimedia Commons

George Romney – Emma Hart in a Straw Hat, 1782-84, Wikimedia Commons

When our kids were learning German in middle school, they learned to sing a song about their hut, which had drei echen, or their hat, which had three corners. So hut is hat in German. Ready for another? Behold, mist:

Steve Partridge, Wikimedia Commons

Steve Partridge, Wikimedia Commons


dung with matching beetle, Wikimedia Commons

Mist is the German word for dung, or manure. Curiouser and curiouser. Here’s another to consider: a couple of Romans.roman


The German word Roman refers to a novel. Then there are some rocks,

DVernon, Wikimedia Commons

DVernon, Wikimedia Commons

Hugo Maertens, Wikimedia Commons

Hugo Maertens, Wikimedia Commons

one you can climb on, and one you can wear: rock in German means skirt. For your browsing pleasure, here is a list of a few dozen other false friends. The left column is the way the word appears in both English and German, the right column is the German meaning.

dose can, tin
fade boring, insipid, dull
fast almost
fund discovery
handy cellphone
happen snack
herb bitter, harsh
herd range, stove
lake brine
list stratagem, cunning
parole motto, slogan, password
pepperoni hot chili pepper
pest plague
probe rehearsal, sample
puff brothel
qualm smoke
quote proportion, number; rating
rat advice, counsel
regal shelf/bookcase
sense scythe
tag day
tot dead
wand wall

Oh, by the way–that picture of a Gift at the top of the post–it’s another false friend. Gift is the German word for poison….

6 thoughts on “I do not think it means what you think it means.

  1. Your description of “false friends” reminded me of one time, when I was quite little. We were at church and I went up and hugged Dad’s legs..only to look up and realize I was hugging some other man’s legs–ack! Not the comfort and security I was looking for…

    • That’s a great way to conjure up the feeling I’m thinking of. I feel certain I did that same thing when I was very young, too….

  2. Pingback: False Amigos | Lori Notes

  3. There’s a story in my memory of post-World War II food aid to Germany sent from the US, which was shipped over in crates with large letters “GIFT” printed on the side. So the Germans would know it was a present, with no obligation for repayment. Of course, the suspicious Germans thought the Americans were trying to poison them and promptly disposed of the crates.

    It’s a good story, but now I am wondering if it really happened that way.

    • That part of my personality that abhors waste devoutly hopes that this story is apocryphal. But in fact, war is waste on a vastly more tragic scale, and there’s no amount of wishing that will make it not so–

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s