Archive for the ‘false friends’ Category

false friends, languages


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.


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