You may have come across the phrase “false friends” or “false cognates” (as they are more accurately known) during your language training. So what does it mean? It has nothing to do with disloyal friends, although linguistic false friends can also be treacherous. They are words that sound similar or are spelled identically but have different meanings in their respective language.
Here are some common German phrases with their English “false friend” below them.
Be careful what aktuell actually means:
German: aktuell – topical, current, up-to-date
English: actually – eigentlich, tatsächlich, wirklich
Eigentlich stammt es aus dem aktuellen Album der Rocksängerin.
Actually, it comes from the rock singer’s current album.
Caption 9, Liza: ein Lied für Opel
When Germans talk about the imminent future, you may think they're talking about someone's lack of hair:
German: bald – soon
English: bald – kahl
…die olympischen Winterspiele, die bald in Vancouver stattfinden werden.
…the Winter Olympic Games that will soon take place in Vancouver.
Watch what you give someone on their birthday!
German: das Gift – poison, venom
English: gift – das Geschenk
Sein Gift ist vergleichbar mit einem Bienenstich.
His poison is comparable to a bee sting.
If you want to make a marriage proposal to a German, pay attention to how you ask...
German: sich engagieren – to be committed, get involved
English: to get engaged – sich verloben
Find' ich das immer gut, sich für solche Sachen zu engagieren.
I think [it's] always good to get involved in such things.
Caption 8, Luxuslärm: rockt gegen's Saufen
The winter is dragging on and spring seems a long way off, but we all know it will come eventually. However, confusing “eventually” with the German eventuell makes spring seem far less likely:
German: eventuell – possibly, perhaps
English: eventually – schließlich, endlich, irgendwann
Eventuell habe ich in der einen oder anderen Situation emotional überreagiert.
Possibly I overreacted emotionally in one or another situation.
Caption 28, Filmtrailer: Keinohrhasen
You may describe a horse as being brav, but this has nothing to do with being brave!
German: brav – well, well-behaved, dutifully
English: brave – mutig, tapfer
Die schönste Wiesn-Erfahrung? Dass immer die Pferde brav gingen.
The best meadow experience? That the horses always went dutifully.
Caption 9, Oktoberfest München: Auf der Wiesn - Part 2
As you can see, using “false friends” in the wrong context can be embarrassing, but most of the time it is just a funny mistake. However, you should try to learn these deceitful words to avoid any faux pas!