A false friend (/fɒls frend/) is a word (or phrase) which is either a cognate (or false cognate) of a second word belonging to different language (occasionally dialect), which have significantly different 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. This can lead to them making productive errors or receptive misunderstandings.
The term "false friend" is derived from the French faux ami.
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, whereas the US expression "It bombed", means it was a failure.
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  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".
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
"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.
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
There are a vast number of these.
- The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Clarendon Press (1998) ISBN 019861263X