Working Across Cultures: Troublesome False Cognates

In linguistics across cultures, not everything is what it seems. Most cognates have a common etymological origin. However, among different languages, there are false cognates, sometimes referred to as “false friends.” These words look like one thing in one language but mean something entirely different in another.

New language learners must be aware of them and be cautious when using them. While it can lead to an embarrassing situation, sometimes it can get employees into a troublesome circumstance.

Here are some examples:


  • Embarrass: In the English language, it refers to “shame.” The Spanish meaning of embarazar or embarazada is equivalent to the English word “pregnant.” Speakers should be careful not to say, “Estoy embarazada,” if they mean to say, “I am embarrassed.” He or she would be stating, “I’m pregnant!” Instead, say, “Estoy avergonzado.”
  • Libreria: This does not refer to a library. Instead, it is a bookstore where you purchase books. A Bibliotheca is equal to a “library” in English.
  • Mayor: In English, this word refers to the head official in a municipal government. In Spanish, it means “older in age” or “wholesale” in business (versus something sold retail).
  • Pie: In English, this refers to a pastry baked with a fruit, vegetable, or meat filling. In Spanish, the word means “foot.”
  • Sin: A word that refers to the ultimate wrongdoing in English simply means “without” in Spanish.


  • Rato: In Spanish, it means “while,” referring to time. In Portuguese, it relates to a rodent.
  • Escritorio: In Spanish, the middle “o” does not have an accent and means “desk.” In Portuguese, it is written as such: escritório and means “office.”


  • Billion: This can be very tricky, especially in big business. In German, “billion” means the English “trillion.” If you really want to say “billion,” the German word is milliarde.
  • Bald: In German, this word means “soon,” while in English, it is a description for someone without hair. The German word to describe someone without hair is Kahl.
  • Mist: In English, this word describes moisture like fine rain. In German, however, it refers to manure. The fine rain in Germany would be called nebel or dunst.
  • Taste: When dining, be careful when asking for a “taste.” The word means key, like the key of a musical instrument or a button on a computer or a machine. The German word for a “taste” of food is geschmack.


  • Ordynarny: While the word looks very similar to the English “ordinary,” what it really means in Polish refers to being vulgar or foul-mouthed.
    Hazard: In English, this is typically something to be alerted to on the road if there is a danger. In Polish, the word refers to gambling.

American English/British English

Even when speaking the same language, “false friends” can pop up in conversation. In America, “football” refers to the National Football League. In Britain and most all other countries, “football” is equal to American “soccer.”

Braces in the UK do not go on your teeth but hold up your pants. They are like American “suspenders.”

A trolley in America is a large car that typically rolls on tracks. In the UK, a small metal basket on wheels used in grocery stores.

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