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False Friends

Oct 2014

Language|Translation ,

False friends are pesky pairs of words that’ll have you asking an embarrassed woman if she’s pregnant and hiring a doctor who is very polite but who hasn’t necessarily gone to university.

For those less familiar with this particular nook of language, false friends are words that sound similar in different languages but which have very different meanings to each other.

We’ve collected some of our favourites and recorded then below so you don’t end up with your foot in your mouth next time you’re on holiday.


Embarazada / Embarrassed (Spanish / English)


This is the go-to example for false friends. Embarazada, although it is very close to the English word embarrassed, actually means pregnant in Spanish.

Definitely one to remember next time you’re chatting someone up in Barcelona!


Lentillas / Lentils (Spanish / English)


If you’re often in the opticians then pay attention!

When Spanish speakers are talking about lentillas, the conversation hasn’t taken an unexpected culinary turn. No, they’re talking about their contact lenses.

So, next time you’re in Spain, don’t get confused when you’re pointed towards the opticians when you’re out shopping for soup ingredients.


Sensible / Sensible (French / English)

False Friends - Emotional

If you’ve been called sensible in France, I have some bad news. It doesn’t mean you’re the type to keep a level head, rather that you ought to pack more tissues since you’re awfully emotional.


Molestar / Molest ( Spanish / English)


Don’t get offended if you’re told you’re molesting someone in Spain. Okay maybe you can get a little offended because it still means “to bother” but at least no one’s accusing you of sexually harassing them!

Carpeta / Carpet (Spanish / English)


There’s no more inventive a linguist than a kid who’s forgotten his homework and Spanish kids are likely to confuse the English word carpet and the Spanish word for dog: carpeta.

“But Miss, the carpet ate my homework.” A sentence heard by English teachers across Spain. (At least in bad jokes.)

A+ for effort but an F for execution, I’m afraid.


Gift / Gift (German / English)


I would not advise giving your German friends a gift for their birthday. (At least not if you like them.)

While giving a gift is perfectly reasonable in English, it’s a little darker in German since gift means poison!


Costume / Costume (Portuguese / English)


If you visit Lisbon for Halloween and someone tells you that you have lots of bad costumes, I’m afraid their criticism isn’t sartorial.

In Portuguese costume means habit. So keep your Captain Jack Sparrow threads on and stop biting your fingernails!


False friends show how languages have connected with each other over time and have since parted ways and evolved separately.

Have you fallen foul of any false friends? Tell us your best story on Facebook or Twitter.

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