False friend

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False friends (French: faux amis) are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets[citation needed]) that look or sound similar, but differ in meaning.

The term should be distinguished from "false cognates", which are similar words in different languages that appear to have a common historical linguistic origin (whatever their current meaning) but actually do not.

As well as complete false friends, use of loanwords often results in the use of a word in a restricted context, which may then develop new meanings not found in the original language.

Contents

Implications

Both false friends and false cognates can cause difficulty for students learning a foreign language, particularly one that is related to their native language, because students are likely to identify the words wrongly due to linguistic interference. For this reason, teachers sometimes compile lists of false friends as an aid for their students.

Comedy sometimes includes puns on false friends, which are considered particularly amusing if one of the two words is obscene; when an obscene meaning is produced in these circumstances, it is called cacemphaton,[1] Greek for "ill-sounding".[2]

Special case: language varieties

British and American English

One kind of false friend can occur when two speakers speak different varieties of the same language. Speakers of British English and American English sometimes have this problem, which was alluded to in George Bernard Shaw's statement "England and America are two countries separated by a common language".[3] For example, in the UK, to "table" a motion means to place it on the agenda (to bring it to the table for consideration), while in the US it means exactly the opposite —"to remove it from consideration" (to lay it aside on the table rather than hold it up for consideration).[4]

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