Linguistic concepts: False friends

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts explaining technical and theoretical terms in linguistics and anthropology, and why they’re important for the hands-on worlds of business and industry.

Today we’re looking at the concept of false friends. It’s a brilliant and memorable term to refer to words and phrases in different languages that may seem like parallel or related concepts, but are not linked, synonymous, or direct translations.

A great example of an English-French false friend is the word ‘pain’. In English, ‘pain’ refers to an unpleasant sensation causing distress; the French ‘pain’ refers to a delicious baked food made of flour, water, yeast, and enhanced with cheese (subject to taste!).

 Another example, from English-German, is ‘die’. In English, ‘die’ means the end of life. German ‘die’ is almost ubiquitous, being a definite article (English equivalent is ‘the’) that comprises many nouns. (‘Die’ of course has several other grammatical functions in German, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this blog post.)

False friends can also occur in different varieties of English – consider ‘biscuit’. Both delicious edibles, but one generally goes with gravy, the other with tea. There are more colourful (taboo) examples which you may be thinking of right now;  click here for a more in-depth discussion on British and American false friends.

Why does the concept of ‘false friends’ matter to you and your organisation? If you’re a multilingual organisation, or work between two or more languages, you want to make sure that your translations are accurate. You cannot rely on assumptions or inference – especially if there’s risk and reward attached to the successful outcome of the translation.

Moreover, the quality of language that your organisation uses will be viewed by those outside of your organisation as a reflection of the quality of work that your organisation does – and as a reflection of the quality of your organisation overall. Get a word or meaning wrong, and you could be undoing a lot of expensive work.

False friends can also have a vital impact on safety. Consider the case of Willie Ramirez. A false friend – in this case, the Spanish ‘intoxicado’ – tragically resulted in permanent quadriplegia and a lawsuit. No medical translator was requested because all parties assumed they were being understood.

Think of the language used by your organisation – have you got any false friends? If so, they may be doing you more harm than good. It’s always worth getting a skilled translator to look over your translations just to make sure you giving the message you want to communicate.

Are you an American company considering expanding into the UK? Are you aware that some Americanisms aren’t used the UK – and can alienate potential customers? Are you inadvertently using words that mean something different to a British audience?


If you’re concerned or want to talk further about false friends, or miscommunication in your organisation, contact us today for a confidential chat:

info@you-say-tomato.com