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Trying to guess the meaning of seemingly familiar foreign words in German texts rather than using a dictionary can sometimes lead to serious misinterpretations. There are quite a few words in German that look or sound similar in English but they have a different meaning in each of the two languages. In linguistics these words are known as false friends or false cognates.
Similar Words with Common Lexical Roots
German and English are West Germanic languages sharing many words with common linguistic roots and they are also borrowing words from one-another. In addition, both of these languages contain many common loanwords from Latin and French as well as from some other languages. These common words make it easier for English speakers to learn German but they can sometimes be a source of confusion if their meaning is contrastingly different in each language. Some false friends between English and German have a partial overlap in meanings which often produces further complications while others have completely different and even opposite meanings. Therefore, German learners must learn to distinguish false friends from true and the only way to do it is to memorise the most common pairs of German-English false friends.
There are various reasons why certain words with common etymologies have different meanings in German and in English. For example, some old Anglo-Saxon words may have lost their original meaning and developed a new meaning in one language while preserving their old meaning in another one. Likewise, certain loanwords from the third language (e.g. French) may have retained their full meaning in one of the languages whereas their meaning has been modified or they kept just one of their many original meanings in another language.
Moreover, a number of German loanwords from English have shifted in their meaning and acquired a different meaning from the original English term whereas some English words have been actually invented by Germans (good examples include ‘das Mobbing’ or ‘das Handy’ which is a noun in German). These in Germany invented English words are called pseudo-anglicisms. Some of them, such as ‘mobbing’, have caught on so well that many native English speakers now use it too when talking about workplace harassment.
Similar Words with Different Etymologies
In addition to words with common origins, there are also words that are spelled or pronounced identically in German and in English and yet they have different etymologies and therefore a completely different meaning.
Little Look-Alike Words
There are several little German words frequently appearing in texts while looking or sounding very English that can confuse unsuspecting beginners. However, these little false friends should not pose a major problem to the more advanced learners of German language. These include:
- vor vs for: the German preposition ‘vor’ means ‘in front of’ or ‘before’ while the English lookalike ‘for’ is ‘für’ in German.
- weil vs while: the German conjunction ‘weil’ translates as ‘because’ whereas the English word with similar pronunciation ‘while’ is equivalent to German ‘während’.
- wer vs where: the German pronoun ‘wer’ is equivalent to ‘who’ while a similar English word ‘where’ translates into German as ‘wo’.
- will vs will: in German ‘ich will’ means ‘I want’ whereas ‘I will’ translates into German as ‘ich werde’.
- wo vs who: the German adverb/conjunction ‘wo’ stands for ‘where’ while the English pronoun ‘who’ equates to ‘wer’ in German (see also ‘wer vs where’ above).
Top 100 False Friends between English and German
Even some advanced German learners may not realise that they attribute wrong meaning to certain familiar-sounding German words. This is particularly true for words that resemble foreign words they already know but differ in meaning. Unless they learn them by heart it can take years of practice to detect them naturally. To help German students avoid common mistakes caused by these little cheaters here is an alphabetical list of the 100 most frequent German-English false friends that any dedicated German learner should know.
- also vs also: ‘also’ in German means ‘so’ whereas the English word ‘also’ translates into German as ‘auch’.
- Ambulanz vs ambulance: though linguistically related to each other, ‘(die) Ambulanz’ is in German used for ‘outpatient accident & emergency room’ in a hospital whereas the English term ‘ambulance’ corresponds to the German word ‘(der) Krankenwagen’.
- Art vs art: the German term ‘(die) Art’ means ‘kind, sort or type’ in English while the English word ‘art’ translates into German as ‘(die) Kunst’.
- Bad vs bad: the German noun ‘(das) Bad’ is ‘bath, bathroom or spa’ in English. The German equivalent for the English adjective ‘bad’ is ‘schlecht or schlimm’.
- bald vs bald: ‘bald’ in German is an adverb and means ‘soon’ while the English adjective ‘bald’ stands for ‘kahlköpfig or glatzköpfig’ in German.
- Beamer vs beamer (or bimmer): in German ‘(der) Beamer’ is ‘a computer or a video projector’ and not a BMW vehicle as in English.
- bekommen vs become: this pair of lookalike verbs have completely different meanings in their respective languages. The German ‘bekommen’ means in English ‘to get or to receive’ while ‘to become’ is ‘werden’ in German.
- Billion vs billion: in German, just like in many other European languages, ‘(die) Billion’ means the same amount as ‘trillion’ in English. The German word for the English ‘billion’ is ‘(die) Milliarde’.
- blenden vs blend: these two verbs may look like twins but this similarity is purely coincidental. The German verb ‘blenden’ means ‘to dazzle or to blind’ whereas the English expression ‘blend’ stands for ‘mischen or verschmelzen’ as well as for ‘(die) Mischung’, depending on whether it is a verb or a noun.
- Bodybag vs body bag: in German ‘(der) Bodybag’ is a pseudo-anglisicm that has nothing to do with the English original (‘body bag’) and is therefore not used for transporting dead bodies. It is a ‘messenger bag’, a type of handbag that wraps around the body. The German term for ‘body bag’ is ‘(der) Leichensack’.
- Brand vs brand: ‘(der) Brand’ means ‘fire’ in English while the English word ‘brand’ translates as ‘(die) Marke or (das) Markenprodukt’.
- brav vs brave: only one letter separates these two and both of them describe positive, yet quite different qualities. The German ‘brav’ means ‘well-behaved or obedient’ whereas ‘brave’ translates into German as ‘mutig or tapfer’.
- Brief vs brief: in German ‘(der) Brief’ is a noun and means ‘letter’. In English ‘brief’ can be both an adjective and a noun and translates into German as ‘kurz’ or ‘(die) Instruktionen’.
- Chef vs chef: this is a loanword from French which kept its full original meaning (‘boss’) in German while its meaning in English is restricted to the French compound word ‘chef de cuisine’ which stands for ‘Chefkoch’ in German.
- Cracker: this is a pseudo-anglicism that Germans use to describe ‘a computer hacker’ rather than a type of cookie.
- dezent vs decent: the German adjective ‘dezent’ is equivalent to the English expression ‘discreet’ rather than ‘decent’. The German word for ‘decent’ is ‘anständig’.
- dick vs dick: ‘dick’ is an adjective in German meaning ‘fat, corpulent or thick’ and not a slang word (a noun) for a man’s penis.
- Direktion vs direction: the German term ‘(die) Direktion’ stands for ‘management or administration’ of a company whereas ‘direction’ is ‘(die) Richtung’ in German.
- Dose vs dose: in German ‘(die) Dose’ is a ‘can’ that usually holds a beverage. The German word for ‘dose’ is ‘(die) Dosis’.
- eventuell vs eventually: the German word ‘eventuell’ means ‘possible or potentially’ in English. ‘Eventually’ is equivalent to the German expression ‘schließlich’.
- Evergreen: ‘(der or das) Evergreen’ is a loanword from English that shifted in its meaning and describes ‘an old song that is widely known and still popular’. The English term ‘evergreen’ can be best translated into German as ‘(die) immergrüne Pflanze’.
- Fabrik vs fabric: the German ‘Fabrik’ stands for ‘factory’ whereas ‘fabric’ can be best translated into German as ‘(der) Stoff’.
- Fahrt vs fart: this pair of words has identical pronunciation but a completely different meaning as ‘(die) Fahrt’ means ‘journey’. The German equivalent for ‘fart’ is ‘(der) Furz’ or ‘furzen’, depending on whether it is a noun or a verb.
- fast vs fast: in German ‘fast’ is an adverb meaning ‘almost or nearly’. The German equivalent of the English adjective ‘fast’ is ‘schnell’ or ‘robust’, depending on the actual meaning. However, the English verb ‘to fast’ translates into German as ‘fasten’ and these two are true friends.
- faul vs foul: ‘faul’ is a common German word used for somebody who is ‘lazy’. The English term ‘foul’ best corresponds to the German ‘schlecht or verdorben’ although in sports terminology it can have the same meaning as in English when used as a noun ‘(das) Foul’.
- Fraktion vs fraction: these two words have very similar meaning but in German ‘(die) Fraktion’ is most often used in politics to describe ‘parliamentary group’. The ‘fraction’ in German is ‘(der) Bruchteil’ but it can also mean ‘(die) Fraktion’ when, for instance, talking about distillation.
- Genie vs genie: in German ‘(das) Genie’ means ‘genius’ while the English word ‘genie’ translates into German as ‘(der) Dschinn’.
- Gift vs gift: the word ‘(das) Gift’ is a good example of how diverse the meanings of two false friends can be. It means ‘poison’ in German. A ‘gift’ (present) is equivalent to ‘(das) Geschenk’ in German.
- graben vs grab: though looking like two twins, this pair of verbs have no common lexical roots. In German ‘graben’ means ‘to dig’ while ‘to grab’ translates into German as ‘greifen’.
- Gymnasium vs gym: the word ‘gymnasium’ comes from the Ancient Greek term ‘gymnasion’ which was an institution that served as a training as well as educational facility for ancient athletes. Today, ‘(das) Gymnasium’ means in German and in many other European languages secondary school with a strong focus on academic learning. The English ‘gymnasium or gym’ is ‘(die) Turnhalle’ in German.
- Handy: ‘(das) Handy’ is a pseudo-anglicism meaning mobile phone in German and has nothing to do with its English counterpart which in German equates to ‘handlich, praktisch or geschickt’.
- Herd vs herd: the German term ‘(der) Herd’ means ‘stove, cooker or oven’ whereas the English noun ‘herd’ translates into German as ‘(die) Herde’ (BTW these latter two happen to be “true friends”).
- Hochschule vs high school: ‘(die) Hochschule’ means university in English whereas ‘high school’ is ‘(das) Gymnasium’ that was mentioned above.
- Hose vs hose: two identical words that linguistically have nothing in common. ‘(Die) Hose’ means ‘pants or trousers’ while the English term ‘hose’ corresponds in meaning to ‘(der) Schlauch’.
- Hut vs hut: these two identical twins have a completely different meaning in each language as ‘(der) Hut’ means ‘hat’ in English whereas the English ‘hut’ stands for ‘(die) Hütte’ in German (BTW ‘a hut’ and ‘die Hütte’ are true friends).
- irritieren vs irritate: ‘irritieren’ in German means ‘confuse’ rather than irritate while ‘to irritate’ translates into German as ‘ärgern’.
- Kaution vs caution: replacing ‘K’ with ‘c’ does not help when trying to understand this German word. The German ‘(die) Kaution’ means ‘deposit’ when, for instance, renting a flat while ‘caution’ in German is ‘(die) Vorsicht’.
- Kind vs kind: ‘(das) Kind’ is equivalent to ‘kid or child’ in English whereas ‘kind (of)’ corresponds to the German noun ‘(die) Art’. The English adjective ‘kind’ is also not related in meaning to its German counterpart and translates as ‘nett or gütig’.
- Konfession vs confession: these two German-English false friends are related but still different. ‘(Die) Konfession’ means ‘religious denomination’ while ‘confession’ best translates into German as ‘(das) Geständnis or (die) Beichte’.
- Konkurrenz vs concurrence: in German ‘(die) Konkurrenz’ means ‘competition or competitor’. The English lookalike ‘concurrence’ corresponds to ‘(die) Gleichzeitigkeit’.
- konsequent vs consequent: these two Latin-derived words are used very differently in each language. The German expression ‘konsequent’ means ‘consistent’ whereas ‘consequent’ can be best translated into German as ‘darauf folgend’.
- Konzern vs concern: ‘(der) Konzern’ stands for ‘a group of companies or holding’. The English term ‘concern’ is equivalent to German expressions ‘(die) Besorgnis’ or ‘(die) Angelegenheit’.
- Kraft vs craft: the German word ‘(die) Kraft’ means ‘power, force or strength’ rather than a result of skilled work. ‘Craft’ translates into German as ‘(das) Handwerk or (die) Kunst’.
- Labor vs labor: ‘(das) Labor’ is an abbreviated form of ‘(das) Laboratorium’, a German word for laboratory. The English word ‘labor’ simply translates as ‘(die) Arbeit’.
- Lack vs lack: in German ‘(der) Lack’ does not refer to shortage. It is equivalent to the English words ‘lacquer or varnish’. The English expression ‘lack (shortage)’ translates as ‘(der) Mangel’.
- Last vs last: ‘(die) Last’ is a noun in German and means ‘load or burden’. In English ‘last’ can be a noun, pronoun, verb or an adverb and in most situations it translates into German as ‘zuletzt’.
- Lektüre vs lecture: ‘(die) Lektüre’ is a loanword from French which borrowed the word ‘lecture’ from the Latin ‘lectura’ whereas the English ‘lecture’ comes directly from Latin. Thus, the German version ‘(die) Lektüre’ refers to ‘reading (e.g., a book)’ just like in French. However, the English version ‘lecture’ has a different meaning found only in Latin. The English ‘lecture’ translates into German as ‘(die) Vorlesung or (der) Vortrag’.
- Limone vs lemon: these two false friends both refer to citrus fruits. However, ‘(die) Limone’ means ‘lime’ not lemon. ‘Lemon’ in German is ‘(die) Zitrone’.
- Lokal vs local: although these two words have a common origin, the German ‘(das) Lokal’ has acquired a new meaning and translates into English as ‘pub (a place where locals go)’. The English word ‘local (an adjective)’ is ‘örtlich’ in German.
- locken vs lock: the German verb ‘locken’ means ‘to lure’ while ‘to lock’ translates into German as ‘sperren or verriegeln’.
- Lyrik vs lyrics: despite common lexical roots ‘(die) Lyrik’ is equivalent to ‘poetry’ rather than lyrics whereas ‘lyrics’ is ‘(der) Liedtext’ in German.
- Mappe vs map: the German noun ‘(die) Mappe’ stands for ‘a folder’ while ‘map’ translates into German as ‘(die) Landkarte or (der) Stadtplan’.
- Meinung vs meaning: although both of these nouns are derived from the same verb (to mean = meinen) they are not equivalent. ‘(Die) Meinung’ translates into English as ‘opinion’ whereas ‘meaning’ corresponds to the German noun ‘(die) Bedeutung’.
- Messe vs mess: ‘(die) Messe’ means either ‘fair’ or ‘mass (in church)’ while the German equivalent for ‘mess’ is ‘(das) Chaos or (die) Unordnung’.
- Mist vs mist: ‘(der) Mist’ in German is not a light fog but rather a ‘dung, rubbish or crap’ whereas the English word ‘mist’ stands for ‘leichter Nebel’.
- Note vs note: ‘(die) Note’ means ‘mark or grade (in school)’ or ‘musical note’ while the English word ‘note’ corresponds in meaning to ‘(die) Notiz or (die) Anmerkung’.
- Notiz vs notice: as mentioned above ‘(die) Notiz’ is ‘note’ in English whereas the English word ‘notice’ stands for ‘(die) Bekanntmachung or (die) Benachrichtigung’.
- Objektiv vs objective: ‘(das) Objektiv’ does not mean goal or objective in English but ‘lens’ such as camera lens. The English noun ‘objective’ translates into German as ‘(das) Ziel’. This is yet another pair of false friends with common linguistic roots albeit different acquired meanings.
- Oldtimer: in German ‘(der) Oldtimer’ is not ‘an old person’ like in English but ‘a vintage car’. This is a pseudo-anglicism.
- ordinär vs ordinary: in German ‘ordinär’ can have a similar meaning to the English word ‘ordinary’ but it can also mean ‘vulgar or rude’. ‘Ordinary’ can be also translated into German as ‘gewöhnlich’.
- Paragraph vs paragraph: ‘(der) Paragraph’ usually has a more specific meaning in German than in English and means ‘a section of law’. The English term ‘paragraph’ better translates into German as ‘(der) Absatz’.
- Pickel vs pickle: ‘(der) Pickel’ is equivalent to the English word ‘pimple’ while ‘pickle’ translates into German as ‘(die) Essiggurke’.
- Präservativ vs preservative: these two words have the same origin and still can confuse you. In German ‘(das) Präservativ’ means ‘condom’ whereas the German equivalent for the English word ‘preservative’ is ‘(das) Konservierungsmittel’.
- prägnant vs pregnant: the German word ‘prägnant’ means ‘concise’ while the English word ‘pregnant’ translates into German as ‘schwanger’.
- Probe vs probe: this word has the same linguistic root in each of the two languages but not so much the meaning. In German ‘(die) Probe’ means ‘rehearsal or test’ whereas the English noun ‘probe’ best corresponds to the German words ‘(die) Untersuchung’ or ‘(die) Sonde (in medicine)’.
- Promotion vs promotion: similar to the above, these twins share common linguistic roots but their meaning has deviated from each other. In German ‘(die) Promotion’ usually means ‘graduation or graduation ceremony’ while the English word ‘promotion’ stands for ‘(die) Beförderung’ or ‘(die) Werbung’ in German.
- Prospekt vs prospect: these two linguistically related twins can have confusing variations in meaning in each language. ‘(Der) Prospekt’ usually means ‘information leaflet or brochure’ whereas the English ‘prospect’ in most situations translates into German as ‘(die) Aussicht’.
- Provision vs provision: the German term ‘(die) Provision’ means ‘commission (fee)’ while the English word ‘provision’ can have a variety of meanings and usually translates into German as ‘(die) Bestimmung, (die) Vorkehrung, (die) Versorgung or (die) Berücksichtigung’.
- Prozess vs process: in German the expression ‘Prozess’ has a restricted meaning in comparison with its English counterpart and means ‘legal proceedings or legal trial’. The English noun ‘process’ is used in a broader sense and can be translated into German as ‘(das) Verfahren, (der) Vorgang or (der) Verlauf’.
- Publikum vs public: these two lookalikes have the same linguistic origin and similar meaning but they are not fully equivalent. The most common meaning of the German word ‘(das) Publikum’ is ‘audience or viewers’ while ‘public’ can be best translated into German as ‘(die) Öffentlichkeit’.
- Rat vs rat: any similarity here is purely coincidental. In German ‘(der) Rat’ corresponds in meaning to ‘advice or council’ whereas the German name for the small invasive rodent is ‘(die) Ratte’. However, ‘rat’ and ‘(die) Ratte’ are true friends.
- Rate vs rate: it is necessary to be careful with these two German-English false friends as the difference in meanings, though seemingly subtle, can be sometimes quite significant. In German ‘(die) Rate’ usually means ‘instalment’ whereas the English ‘rate’ is equivalent to ‘(der) Kurs, (der) Tarif, (die) Quote or (die) Rendite’.
- realisieren vs realise: the verb ‘realisieren’ has a restricted meaning in German and stands for ‘to implement or to carry out’. The English word ‘to realise’ can be translated into German as ‘begreifen or erkennen’.
- Rente vs rent: ‘(die) Rente’ means ‘pension (benefits paid after retirement)’ while the English noun ‘rent’ translates into German as ‘(die) Miete’.
- Rezept vs receipt: these two lookalikes are not related. The German word ‘(das) Rezept’ is equivalent to the English words ‘prescription’ and ‘recipe (e.g., das Kochrezept)’ whereas ‘receipt’ is ‘(die) Quittung or (der) Beleg’. However, the words ‘(das) Rezept’ and ‘recipe’ are true friends when discussing cooking.
- ringen vs ring: any similarity is a coincidence. The German verb ‘ringen’ means ‘to wrestle or to grapple’ while the verb ‘to ring’ is equivalent to the German ‘klingeln or läuten’.
- Rock vs rock: ‘(der) Rock’ means ‘skirt’ whereas the English ‘rock’ translates into German as ‘(der) Stein or (der) Fels’.
- Roman vs Roman: in German ‘(der) Roman’ means ‘novel’ while the English noun ‘Roman’ is equivalent to ‘(der) Römer’.
- Schmuck vs schmuck: there is no linguistic link whatsoever between these two identical twins. ‘(Der) Schmuck’ means ‘jewellery’ whereas the English word ‘schmuck’ can be best translated into German as ‘(der) Schwachkopf, (der) Dummkopf or (der) Depp’.
- Sekt vs sect: ‘(der) Sekt’ means ‘sparkling wine’ while ‘sect’ is equivalent to ‘(die) Sekte (religious sect)’. However, the latter two are true friends.
- sensibel vs sensible: the German adjective ‘sensibel’ means ‘sensitive’ in English and not sensible whereas ‘sensible’ translates into German as ‘vernünftig’. This pair of German-English false friends is a frequent source of confusion for many beginners.
- seriös vs serious: there is a slight difference in meaning between these two lookalikes. The German word ‘seriös’ means ‘respectable or honest’ while ‘serious’ can be best translated into German as ‘ernst’.
- Sinn vs sin: ‘(der) Sinn’ is ‘sense’ in English whereas ‘sin’ corresponds to the German noun ‘(die) Sünde’.
- Smoking: ‘(der) Smoking’ is a pseudo-anglicism and means ‘dinner jacket or tuxedo’ while the English noun ‘smoking’ stands for ‘(das) Rauchen’ in German.
- spenden vs spend: when it comes to money these two false friends have opposite meanings. In German ‘spenden’ means ‘to donate’ whereas the English verb ‘to spend’ translates as ‘ausgeben or verbringen (e.g., das Geld verbringen)’.
- spotten vs spot: ‘spotten’ is equivalent to the English verb ‘to mock’ while the English word ‘to spot’ best translates into German as ‘erblicken or erkennen’.
- Stapel vs staple: in German ‘(der) Stapel’ means ‘pile or stack’ whereas the English noun ‘staple’ most often translates into German as ‘(die) Klammer (e.g., Heftklammer)’.
- stark vs stark: the German adjective ‘stark’ means ‘strong’ while its English twin corresponds in meaning to the German terms ‘gänzlich, starr or krass’, depending on the context.
- Stern vs stern: ‘(der) Stern’ is a noun in German meaning ‘star’ whereas ‘stern’ in English is an adjective that translates into German as ‘streng’.
- Stock vs stock: in German ‘(der) Stock’ means ‘floor’ or ‘stick (such as walking stick)’ while the English word ‘stock’ can be translated into German as either ‘(die) Aktie’ or ‘(der) Vorrat’. However, ‘(der) Stock’ and ‘stick’ are true friends in at least one sense of the word.
- streng vs strong: the German adjective ‘streng’ means ‘strict’ whereas ‘strong’ equates to ‘stark’ in German.
- sympathisch vs sympathetic: if somebody calls you ‘sympathisch’ in German they mean you are a ‘nice, pleasant or likable’ person. The English term ‘sympathetic’ is ‘mitfühlend’ in German.
- Tablett vs tablet: ‘(das) Tablett’ is ‘a tray’ usually for serving food while ‘tablet (a pill)’ stands for ‘(die) Tablette’.
- Tag vs tag: the word ‘(der) Tag’ is one of the first German words anybody learns and means ‘day’. The English word ‘tag’ translates into German as ‘(das) Etikett or (die) Markierstelle’.
- Taste vs taste: ‘(die) Taste’ is a key on the keyboard while the English noun ‘taste’ is equivalent to ‘(der) Geschmack’. Hence, the German verb ‘tasten’ means ‘to grope’ and the English verb ‘to taste’ translates as ‘kosten or schmecken’.
- toll vs toll: luckily, the German word ‘toll’ has nothing to do with levying taxes and simply means ‘great or fantastic’. The English noun ‘toll’ is ‘(die) Maut or (die) Zollabgabe’.
- Trunk vs trunk: the German term ‘(der) Trunk’ is not a nose of an elephant or a woody stem of a tree but ‘a drink’. A ‘trunk’ translates into German as ‘(der) Rüssel (elephant)’ or ‘(der) Stamm (tree)’.
- Unternehmer vs undertaker: sometimes common sense can be misleading. Although these two words were created by following similar logic, they describe very different types of professions. ‘(Der) Unternehmer’ means ‘entrepreneur’ while ‘undertaker’ is ‘(der) Leichenbestatter’.
- Warenhaus vs warehouse: just like the example above, these two compound words follow the same logic but mean different things in each of the two languages. ‘(Das) Warenhaus’ is ‘a department store’ while ‘warehouse’ translates into German as ‘(das) Lagerhaus or (das) Warenlager’.
- winken vs wink: there is some similarity between these two words but make sure you understand their exact meaning. The German verb ‘winken’ means ‘to wave’ whereas ‘to wink’ corresponds to the German verb ‘blinzeln or zwinkern’.
So, make sure you remember most of these German-English false friends as not to get fooled by their apparent similarity. And remember that there are several hundred other confusing English-lookalikes in German vocabulary that did not make it to this list. Therefore, try to learn every new word in a context and, if in doubt, always refer to the dictionary for explanation of its meaning. That’s the best way to prevent falling for false cognates.