What are false friends?
You’re learning German, doing well, ordering coffee and thanking grocery cashiers all the time. But a brief chat with your neighbour gets you a stern look instead of thanks, and you wonder what happened. I mean, you just said you’d bring them a gift for watering your plants when you were away!
Ah, it could only mean one thing. False friends. It refers to words that look the same in German and English, but have very different meanings, not that guy who never shows up to help you move even though he said he would. Well, technically he is a false friend too, but you can cull your Facebook friends later.
Poison is a Gift?
If you’re Denglishing (speaking a mix of German and English) your sentences still, watch out for this one. You may think you’re promising something pleasant to someone, but they may very well report you to the police. Gift means poison in German. The word you’re actually looking for is Geschenk.
This is a classic one that confuses German learners and Germans learning English. Bekommen in German means to get or receive something. Jeder Junge bekommt ein Stück Kuchen, for instance, means ‘Each boy gets a slice of cake’ – no one is turning young boys into cake, despite how much that sounds like a lesser-known Brothers Grimm tale. To talk about someone becoming something, the verb you need in German is ‘werden’.
If you don’t get this one right in English, it feels like mansplainers are everywhere. Aktuell in German means ‘current’ or ‘currently’ depending on the context. To tediously start a sentence with ‘Actually…’ you will want to use eigentlich. Or don’t. But I leave that up to you.
Unless you’re in a medical field or prepping for the apocalypse, it might be quite a while in your German-learning journey before you come across this one. Dose in German refers to a can of something, like a can of beans is Dosenbohnen. But if you want to explain you’ve only had one dose of painkillers, you would say eine Dosis. Personally, I don’t love canned beans but I know they are good for me, so it feels like a dose of fiber when I eat them.
When my son asked me what pizza had to do with hats, I admit I was very confused. I have since learned this is a common mix-up in Germany, as the logo of a popular American pizza chain with the red roof also looks like a hat, which doesn’t help. Hut in German means ‘hat’ rather than a small building. What in English would be a ‘hut’ is Hütte in German. I will forever call that place Pizza Hat now though, which earns me an eye roll from my son every time. Worth it.
No, that person fumbling for their train ticket when the conductor shows up is not mumbling about the weather. Mist is German for that all-purpose English word ‘crap’. You can even say um Mist zu reden, which means ‘to talk crap’ about something. Of course if you would like to be polite and talk about the weather, you would be referring to Nebel. If it was very misty and then you stepped in something noxious, yes, that could be Hundemist (‘dog crap’).
You will hear people calling out to each other, Bis bald! which brings to mind shiny heads devoid of hair to English speakers. Possibly more distressingly, when a waiter lets you know your food will be up shortly, and they say Es kommt bald. No one is commenting on your hair loss, not out loud anyway. Bald means soon, in German. Make sure you’re going with the ‘ah’ sound for the vowel sound, and you can banish hair from your mind. Of course, if you would like to discuss someone’s baldness, Er hat eine Glatze will work.