German language

Diccon Bewes: False friends in German

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It would seem the sole existence of 'false friends' is to trip up foreign language learners and land them red-faced in embarrassing situations.

False friends are words in two different languages that sound or are spelt similar but usually have very different meanings. They aren’t the worst part of learning a foreign language but they are often the most memorable, precisely because you find out the hard way how easy miscommunication can be.

A chef using a preservative in English isn’t quite the same as a Chef using a Präservativ in German. Confusing a cook and marmalade with a boss (Chef) and condoms (Präservativ) is a great example of how embarrassing – and funny – false friends can be. And with friends like these, who needs enemies?

English and German are full of false friends, possibly because the languages are so closely linked, so as an English-speaker learning German, I fell into their traps more than once. If I say 'mist', am I talking about the weather or swearing out loud? It was also no surprise to meet German-speakers learning English who were experiencing the same problems in reverse.

But it's not all hard work; here are eight ways British author Diccon Bewes and Swiss cartoonist Michael Meister have fun with false friends.

A herd is a group of animals (die Herde).
Der Herd means a stove or cooker.


A chef is a professional cook (der Koch, die Köchin).
Der Chef means a boss.


A formula is a mathematical relationship, usually expressed in symbols (die Formel).
Das Formular means a form or questionnaire.

A gift is a present (das Geschenk).
Das Gift means poison.

A boot is a type of footwear (der Stiefel).
Das Boot means a boat.

Old timer

An old timer is slang for an old man (alter Hase).
Der Oldtimer means a vintage car.


A preservative is an additive that conserves food (der Konservierungsstoff).
Der Präservativ means a condom.


Smoking is the act of smoking a cigarette (das Rauchen).
Der Smoking is a dinner jacket or tuxedo.


Excerpts by Diccon Bewes and Swiss cartoonist Michael Meister / Reprinted with permission of Diccon Bewes.

False friends: 51 ways to be misunderstood

False Friends: 51 Ways to be Misunderstood celebrates the perils of learning English or German. It is a collection of 51 classic examples of linguistic booby traps, each with an English sentence illustrated by a cartoon. At the back is a glossary that explains both meanings of the word in question, along with their German translations. Thumbnail credit: Angel James de Ocampo.

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