False Friends

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by Margaret Watson

Years ago I studied Spanish at Queen’s University in Belfast. The class was very intense, getting you from beginner to translator level in 10 months, or that at least was the theory. We weren’t the usual bunch of students in that each of us had pressing, but different reasons for learning the language – two priests were taking up posts in Spain, I was supposed to be taking over a Bolivian hospital, one lady had a Spanish boyfriend, another wanted to be able to talk to her Mexican daughter-in-law and grandchildren. So we all tried hard and our tutor was excellent.

The problem was that, like English, Spanish has many ‘false friends’ i.e. words we think we recognise and know, but which can actually mean something very different. A friend of mine once introduced a very important Bolivian lady in Argentina. The Argentineans understood him to say ‘Venerable lady’, but unfortunately where she came from the words meant ’Old Cow!’

It is the same with German. Although my daughter has taught in Germany I have never tried to learn, but I do know that it can be full of pitfalls for English speakers.

Hut for instance in English is a small building, in German a hat. The English wear boots, the Germans sail in them. We take the rind off an orange, in Germany to take the rind would be to move a cow. If a German gives you rat he is giving advice. We eat kippers, but to them a kipper is a dump truck. This is only the beginning.

There are phrases that just don’t translate in every tongue. ‘It’s black over …( the next words depend upon where you come from but ‘our mother’s’ is one version. It actually means ‘It’ll rain soon.’ Earlier on this afternoon I quite literally ‘put the icing on the cake’, but that phrase usually means the something extra that makes something really special. ‘To tie someone in knots’ means to confuse them – which is probably how you are feeling by now. I have a friend who has been in England for three years who, if I’m speaking to her one to one, manages to communicate very well, but recently we have been meeting in a larger group where idiom is used a lot and she is struggling. As she and her husband only have English as their common language it can make conversation a little stilted, but we get there. They now have a son of about 18 months. I have assured Carlotta that when her son starts school his English will be perfect and hers will improve in leaps and bounds – which bought another puzzled look until I explained that I meant very quickly. She now writes down phrases that she doesn’t understand and either asks for an explanation at the time or we work it out later. Recent examples have been ‘Beat his brains out’, ‘going to seed’, ’a trump card’, ‘a bad apple’, ‘one pencil short of a box’. I’m not going to tell you what they mean, but leave it as a puzzle for you. If you get really stuck ask someone. It’s as good a way as any to make new friends.

Whichever language you speak there will be similar examples - so take care out there, but be bold, and if you get it wrong, just laugh. I do.

Do you know a false friend in your language?  Share it on the forum.