Category Archives: Teaching

You tricky little… friend

If you’ve studied French before, you might be able to guess that this post is about faux amis or “false friends.” Similar terms are used in Spanish, and I assume possibly other languages as well. It refers to words that appear to have the same meaning but don’t – not to be confused with “false cognates” which are words that by pure coincidence are similar in two unrelated languages. The misuse of such words can lead to embarrassment, misunderstanding, anger or all around hilarity. I’m a fan of the latter, especially when the people involved don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s what makes learning and teaching languages fun.

If you’ve ever tried to tell your French teacher you prefer not to consume preservatives, you’ll know this. If he/she was cool, their would have been a lot of laughter. That was my experience. Préservatifs aren’t agents of food conservation in French, but rather, prophylactic condoms. Of course, then my classmates and I started seeking out other examples of similar mistranslations, which did quickly annoy our teacher.

If a woman tells someone in Spanish that she’s embarazada she’ll probably be congratulated. In Spanish, the word means “pregnant.” That reminds me of a similar mix-up here in Korea where I saw a student who looked a bit down. She was in her late teens. I walked up to her and asked, “Are you alright? You look a bit sad.”

“Yes,” she replied, “I’m expecting.”

Good reason to be sad for a teenager in a conservative country, I guess, but what was really going on was she was down because she was expecting results for an important exam. In Korean there are virtually no rules at all to require objects or indirect objects as in English. Context, or further questioning, is necessary to understand exactly what is being expected, and leaving out objects can’t alter the meaning of theword as it would in English. More on that in the future.

Back to falsos amigos, and speaking of friends, I knew a gal in my first year of university with the most unfortunate nickname. Her given name, Penelope, was really quite harmless – and yes, she was Greek. The misfortune comes from the shortened version of that name: Pene. Now, you don’t have to stretch your Latin loanwords too too much to snicker over that one a little bit. If you can’t guess, pene is Spanish for another “p” word denoting a part of the male physique. Nobody – myself included – had the decency to tell her she should choose another appellation, at least in Spanish.

Another friend of mine went by the last name Puta, Spanish for prostitute. In a similar vein, If a Dutchmen, or woman, calls you “hore” a lot, there’s really no reason to get upset. It can apparently mean quite a lot of things, but never implies anything about promiscuity and is actually quite common.

A lot, of course, of the most comical false friends have slightly to seriously off color connotations in our native language, the kind that you have to pretend not to notice sometimes. For me, I’ve always chosen to take a lighthearted approach to them and revel in the opportunity to be a bit immature, and why not? Life’s to short not to laugh at it a bit. Of course, it is quite embarrassing when something obscene slips out and you never intended it. Any stories to share?


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