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False Friends / falsche Freunde

German-English False Cognates

With the False Cognate Glossary

The good news: German and English are closely related and have many words in common. And the bad news? German and English are closely related and have many words in common.

Any English-speaker learning German should be aware of this fact. But sometimes things are not what they seem to be. Among the many words the two languages have in common lurk the so-called "false friends." Linguistic false friends can be just as dangerous as the human variety. These treacherous words pretend to be something they aren't. They can lead to embarrassment, or if you're lucky, just laughter.

False friends, more accurately known as "false cognates," are particularly prevalent in the two Germanic languages English and German. Because the two languages are such close relatives, they have a lot of words that look and sound alike or very similar. The innocent variety includes word pairs such as: begin/beginnen, house/Haus, garden/Garten, brown/braun, father/Vater, and summer/Sommer. There are many of these genuine cognates, and any language learner should use them to advantage.

The genuine cognates can be just as helpful for a German learning English as for an American learning German. But the false ones can also be a hidden danger going both ways. (There are many German books warning of such dangers in learning English.) Whether they are called "confusing words," "false friends," "words to watch out for," or anything else, false cognates are something a language-learner must always be aware of. It's too easy to fall into the trap.

Continued below chart.

Some German "False Friends"
DEUTSCH ENGLISH Correct German Term
bald soon bald = kahl
Billion trillion (US) billion = Milliarde
Dom cathedral dome = Kuppel
Gift poison gift, present = Geschenk
konsequent consistent(ly) consequently = folglich
Menü today's special
(at a restaurant)
menu = Speisekarte
Präservativ condom preservative = Konservierungsmittel
Puff bordello puff = Hauch/Zug
Slip briefs, underwear slip = Unterkleid
slip (of foot) = Fehltritt
winken to wave to wink = blinzern, zwinkern
  More falsche Freunde in our False Friends Glossary

So, just what are we talking about, actually (aktuell)? Eventually (eventuell), we have to be brave (brav) and face the problem (Problem).

In the two sentences above, only one of the German words in parentheses next to the English word is a true equivalent of that word. Do you know which one? Of the four, only das Problem could be used in the same sense as the English. Although aktuell looks almost like a twin of "actual" or "actually," the German word actually means "current, topical, up-to-date." German eventuell is almost the opposite of "eventually," meaning "possibly" or "perhaps." English "brave" is expressed in German by tapfer or mutig, while brav means "good, well-behaved"—as in "Du bist ein braver Junge, Hans." ("You're a good boy, Hans.")

Take the
"False Friends" Quiz!

Some false friends are only a problem in the wrong context. Rezept resembles the English word "recipe" and can mean just that. But ein Rezept is also a "prescription" for the pharmacist (Apotheker). On the other hand, if you think "receipt" when you see Rezept, the German word you really want is Quittung or Beleg.

The German word Star can mean "starling" (bird), "cataract" (eye, grauer Star) or the word it resembles, "movie star." One thing it does not mean is a "star" in the night sky. That would be Stern, another false cognate.

For a list of more than 75 false cognates with their true meanings, see our Glossary of "False Friends" in German.


Related Pages

"False Friends" Glossary
Over 75 German-English falsche Freunde from your Guide.

"False Friends" Quiz 1
A short quiz on German-English falsche Freunde.

German Grammar Guide
All of the articles and references on this site that deal with grammar - by topic.

Lektion 3
Lesson 3 is an introduction to nouns and gender. Part of our online German for Beginners course.

Noun Chart: English-German Plural/Singular
A table of German nouns that differ from English in their singular or plural use.

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