Deutsch, German, Language

“Don’t be such a plague!”: A Selection of German False Friends for English Speakers

I wrote about false friends way back when in a post in 2016. You can read up on it here. In that post, I went over some basic words you might hear in Germany, such as Handy (mobile phone) and Gift (poison). Seen as I haven’t wrote a language post in a while, I thought I’d write another one with another selection of pesky false friends that might catch you out when speaking German. I tried to get a good mixture – from words that are probably going to be quite important in everyday German, to some that are just for fun that have caught me out on random occasions.


aktuell

what you’re probably thinking:
actual

what it actually means:
current/latest

You see this word a lot in the news, with aktuelle Nachrichten referring to the latest news. It’s only a minor word but can mean quite the difference if you don’t know its real meaning!

“actual” in German:
tatsächlich/eigentlich


bekommen

what you’re probably thinking:
become

what it actually means:
get/receive

This is one of the classics when it comes to making jokes about Germans speaking English, such as “Can I become a Schnitzel?” or “Can I become a cup of coffee?”. I certainly hope not, ‘cos that would be weird. Like an odd 124th sequel of Transformers or something…

“become” in German:
werden

img_9914
I would like to become a Schnitzel, please. Mmm, Schnitzel.

 dezent

what you’re probably thinking:
decent

what it actually means:
discrete

This one took me a while to work out. If you want to say that somebody told you something discretely, you use the word dezent, which I at first thought meant that the person said it in a decent manner (whatever that’s supposed to mean? I sometimes just go with the flow without really thinking…). It all made sense when I was told a few years later what it actually means…

“decent” in German:
angemessen/anständig


eventuell

what you’re probably thinking:
eventually

what it actually means:
perhaps

This is quite a common word in German and it is often shortened to evtl.. It refers to something that could perhaps happens. For example, you could say you will eventuell be late home because your bus is delayed (but there is a chance you might still be on time). It’s basically synonymous to perhaps and maybe, but looks like our ‘eventually’ for whatever reason.

“eventually” in German:
schließlich/letztendlich


fast

what you’re probably thinking:
fast/quick

what it actually means:
nearly

“Fast geschafft!”, you might hear a German cry, as the damn Deutsche Bahn train sets off without them (OK bad example seen as the trains are always late). It has nothing to do with being quick at all, just simply is used when something nearly happens.

“fast” in German (come on, I bet you know this one):
schnell

14496251684_6bc213253f_k
Sorry, Deutsche Bahn. You are schnell, but you’re never on time. Image credit: — Andy Engelen (https://www.flickr.com/photos/andyengelen/) – Subject to CC 2.0 License.

hell

what you’re probably thinking:
hell

what it actually means:
bright

The German word hell is used to describe something that is bright. That is, either literally a bright light (helles Licht) or perhaps a light colour (hellblau, meaning light blue). If I’m not mistaken, it can also refer to an intelligent person – just like we can call somebody ‘bright’.

“hell” in German:
Hölle


Hut

what you’re probably thinking:
hut

what it actually means:
hat

That damn one letter. I wrote about this mishap in another blog post which you can read here, where I announced I was to buy a hut in Italy, when really I just thought it was a bit sunny and I didn’t want to get sunburn on my head…

“hut” in German:
Hütte


irritiert

what you’re probably thinking:
irritated

what it actually means:
confused

This is the most recent word I learnt on this list, and it was thanks to Amy who wrote about it on her blog post here: Writing English content: Tips for German native speakers. If a German is irritiert, it doesn’t actually mean they are irritated (which I thought was the case for a good 5 years now). It actually just means they’re a little confused. So if a German is irritiert at your reply, they’re not annoyed at you – just confused (which isn’t ideal either, but better that than mad!).

“irritated” in German:
genervt


Pest

what you’re probably thinking:
pest

what it actually means:
plague

Yeah, don’t call anybody a Pest in German. Unless you really, really don’t like them.

“pest” in German:
Schädling (in terms of agriculture)
Nervensäge (in terms of someone who’s just really annoying)


Rock

what you’re probably thinking:
rock/stone

what it actually means:
skirt

This is one of the classics you learn at school with it being a piece of clothing. A Rock in German means a skirt that you wear and has nothing at all to do with geology! Do note though that Rock can also refer to rock music, just like we spell it. Not easy is it!

“rock” in German:
Stein


sensibel

what you’re probably thinking:
sensible

what it actually means:
sensitive

When describing someone, sensibel is rather a negative term. Whereas we might immediately think of the word ‘sensible’ which, generally, is a good thing, it refers to somebody who is a little bit sensitive. So be careful with this classic false friend!

“sensible” in German:
vernünftig


wanken

what you’re probably thinking:
Excuse me what?

what it actually means:
to sway

Pronounced with a ‘v’ at the start, wanken means ‘to sway’. Yes, seriously. No, I’m not joking. It can also mean to stagger or stumble. So if you have perhaps had a lot to drink, then you might… ah, you get me.

“Excuse me what?” in German:
No, look it up yourself!


 

Do you know any other German false friends that you’ve had problems with in your German learning experience? Or perhaps you’re a German speaker and there are English words that trip you up? It would be interesting to hear about your experiences! 🙂

2 thoughts on ““Don’t be such a plague!”: A Selection of German False Friends for English Speakers”

  1. Ha, got to love German. What’s the plural for Hut (hats)? I think ‘brav’ could be a false friend?

    1. The plural of Hut is Hüte I believe! And ja, of course – that’s a very good example of a false friend! It means well-behaved and not brave as you may think!

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