False Friends


Anyone learning a foreign language soon becomes aware of false friends – those words that look alike in both the languages. One of the most obvious false friends in English for anyone learning it is actual. Most European languages seem to have a word that looks very much like it, but which means something different, usually ‘current’, or ‘present day’. But what about words that mean something quite different in different varieties of the same language? I’m thinking of words like alternate, that in British English means ‘every other’ – “He works on alternate days”, but in American English is an alternative word for – alternative. Many British airline passengers are disconcerted when an American pilot tells them they will be landing momentarily: they are expecting to be able to get off the plane. In British English, momentarily means ‘for a moment’, but in American English, ‘in a moment’. Warning signs on level crossings in Britain had to be changed after the authorities discovered that while has a different meaning in some parts of England. “Stop while the lights flash” was intended to mean that if the lights are flashing, stop, because a train is coming. But in some forms of English, the sign meant ‘stop until the lights flash’. Does this sort of false friend have a name?


  1. False friends — love the category.

    In Mandarin, “OK” has been borrowed into a usage rather different from what it gets in the US. If I ask a Beijinger how the Olympics were, he’s likely to say “OK” with great enthusiasm, meaning something like “fantastic!”

    I have tried mostly without success to convince my native Mandarin-speaking friends that it means something more like “acceptable” in English, but the only effect has been to convince them that I know nothing about my native language.

  2. Consume. English to French.

    Not strictly an example of a “false friend”, but close enough for misunderstanding

    (sorry for link in a comment, but it explains the above)


  3. There are also true friends that are unknown to native speakers. A favourite word of Spanish speakers when writing English is obtention, which they think ought to be the English for obtención, and is formed in a perfectly regular way by adding -tion to obtain. The careful Spanish speaker may decide to check by looking it up in a dictionary such as the Shorter OED, and there it is, with exactly the meaning it ought to have, and nothing to say that it is rare or obsolete. The only problem is that most native speakers have never come across this word in their lives (unless they read text written by Spanish speakers) and would be prepared to swear that it doesn’t exist.

  4. Just makes me think how much English tries to trip up those learning it for the first time. The questions brought to me by our ESL students at Washington Academy of Languages confound me all the time, and I’m supposed to know my own language!

  5. Americans do use alternate in the ‘British’ sense; the much-bemoaned alternate side of the street parking regulations of New York City forbid parking during certain hours of the day on the north (or east) side of a street if it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, and on the south (or west) side if it is Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, so that that side of the street may be cleaned. (Sundays are free for both parkers and street cleaners.)

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