False friend

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A false friend (/fɒls frend/) (from the French faux ami)[1] is a word in another language, or different varieties of the same language, which looks very similar to a word in one's own language but has a different meaning. Another instance is in the case of words with more than one meaning, where the same word in the other language may only have one of those meanings.

False friends can cause difficulty for students learning a foreign language because they may lead to a misidentification of the words due to interference from their first language.

Even speakers of British English and American English can come across this problem. For example, in the UK, to table a motion means to place it on the agenda, whereas in the US it means exactly the opposite, that is, to remove it from consideration. Likewise, the British expression "It went like a bomb" means it was very successful,[1] whereas the US expression "It bombed", means it was a failure.[2]


Of the many thousands of false friends, some typical examples include:

  • actual /ˈæktʃuːəl/, which in English means "real", whereas actual /akˈtwal/ in Spanish it means "current" or "present";
  • magazine, which in English is a type of publication, and magasin in French, which means "shop";
  • preservative, which in English refers to a substance which is added to food [1] but is unfortunately remarkably similar to words in several other languages, such as préservatif (French), Präservativ (German), prezervativ (Romanian, Czech, Croatian), and preservativo (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese). In all these other languages, except English, it means "condom".
  • Minion in English is a servant, while in French the word means "darling" or "dear friend".

False cognates[edit]

Cognates are words that share an etymological origin. False cognates are words that sound similarly by coincidence.

For example "arm" meaning weapon is cognate with Spanish arma or French arme. But "arm" meaning upper limb is a false cognate.

Most false friends are true cognates. For example English "actually" and Spanish actualmente come from Latin āctuālis.

Sometimes there is a double coincidence and false cognates have the same meaning. For example "island" comes from Old English īegland. The word isle is not a cognate, because it comes from Latin insula.

Typical and frequent examples[edit]

American/British English[edit]

"Two nations divided by a common tongue"

  • A rubber in the UK is an eraser in the US. A rubber in the US is a condom all over the world.
  • Pants in the UK are underpants in the US. Pants in the US are trousers in the UK.
  • Football in the US is American football in the rest of the world. What is football in the rest of the world is called soccer in the US.

See also American English v. British English § Vocabulary.


Numerous faux amis exist. It is no accident that the term was coined in French. See list of English-French false friends.

  • library = bibliothèque
librairie = bookshop
  • location = emplacement
location = leasing, rental
  • pain = douleur
pain = bread
  • route = itinéraire
route = road


Main: List of English-Spanish false friends.

There are a vast number of these.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Clarendon Press (1998) ISBN 019861263X
  2. www.merriam-webster.com

See also[edit]