Embarrassing English-German False Friends

50 Hilarious examples and tips how to avoid them

What are English-German False Friends?

“Can I become a beer, please”. If Germans order a beer in a pub in England with these words, they can be sure to receive a little grin and a wink from the waiter! So, does the customer really want to turn into a beer? However enticing that might sound, this is hardly the meaning intended. Instead, this is an English-German false friend. The reason for this translation error is that the English “to become” sounds very similar to the German verb “bekommen”, so in order to get a beer, they can be tricked into using this false friend translation.

Learning a new language can sometimes be a challenge, especially when it comes to the translation of English words that sound similar in the German language but have completely different meanings. Needless to say that two different meanings can fundamentally change a sentence! These so-called “false friends” can lead to amusing misunderstandings and sometimes embarrass us in the process. In this blog, we look at some funny mistakes Germans make when learning English with false friends vocabulary. We also give tips on how to spot these false friends and avoid some of the pitfalls. So, get ready and let’s laugh together about these humorous language mishaps!

Examples for English-German False Friends

False friends in English

Imagine a German arrives at a hotel, and they are asked by the receptionist whether they have had a good journey.  They happily reply “Thank you, I had a nice fart”. Not sure, who would be able to hold a straight face at this. The intention would have been to say they had a good journey/drive. However,  “journey” in German is “Fahrt” – it has  a similar spelling and is pronounced in the same way as the English word “fart”! Another embarrassing example of an English-German false friend.

In another situation, a German might ask the cashier in the clothes shop to sell them this wonderful “rock”. Again, this is an English-German false friend. The German word “Rock” means “skirt” in English, so somebody could falsely assume that those two words are a direct translation of each other.

Another rather funny English-German false friend is the German word for “bright”, which is “hell”. So don’t be offended if a German describes your living room as being very “hell” – they might want to compliment you on your living style rather than offend you!

Because there are so many funny and slightly embarrassing examples, we have compiled a list of English words whose meaning is often misunderstood by Germans because of the similarity of the words. Read through this list carefully, smile, marvel and memorise a few of these terms and have a laugh with your German friends.

Englisch Word

German False Friend & Correct translation

become≠ bekommen (to get)
= werden
biro≠ Büro (office)
= Kugelschreiber
brand≠ Brand (fire)
= Marke
brave≠ brav (well-behaved)
= mutig
brief≠ Brief (letter)
= kurz
caution≠ Kaution (deposit)
= Vorsicht
chef≠ Chef (boss)
= Koch
concern≠ Konzern (corporation)
= Sorge
concurrence≠ Konkurrenz (competition)
= Zustimmung
corn≠ Korn (grain)
= Mais
curious≠ kurios (quirky)
= neugierig
decent≠ dezent (discreed)
= anständig
eagle≠ Igel (hedgehog)
= Adler
engaged≠ engagiert (dedicated)
= verlobt
fabric≠ Fabrik (factory)
= Stoff
fart≠ Fahrt (trip)
= Furz
fast≠ fast (almost)
= schnell
fort≠ fort (gone)
= Festung
gift≠ Gift (poison)
= Geschenk
gymnasium (gym)≠ Gymnasium (secondary school)
= Turnhalle
handy≠ Handy (mobile phone)
= praktisch
happen≠ Happen (a bite)
= geschehen
hell≠ hell (bright)
= Hölle
hose≠ Hose (trousers)
= Schlauch
hut≠ Hut (hat)
= Hütte
island≠ Island (Iceland)
= Insel
jealousy≠ Jalousie (blinds)
= Eifersucht
kind≠ Kind (child)
= freundlich
labor≠ Labor (laboratory)
= Arbeit
lecture≠ Lektüre (a reading)
= Vorlesung
loan≠ Lohn (salary)
= Darlehen
map≠ Mappe (folder)
= Landkarte
massive≠ massiv (solid)
= riesig
mince≠ Minze (mint)
= Hackfleisch
pension≠ Pension (guesthouse)
= Rente
plate≠ Platte (a board)
= Teller
pregnant≠ prägnant (concise)
= schwanger
puppy≠ Puppe (doll)
= Welpe
rat≠ Rat (advice)
= Ratte
sea≠ See (lake)
= Meer
sensible≠ sensibel (sensitive)
= vernünftig
serious≠ seriös (reputable)
= ernst
slipper≠ Schlüpfer (panties)
= Hausschuh
spare≠ sparen (to save)
= (ver)schonen
spend≠ spenden (to donate)
= ausgeben
tramp≠ trampen (to hitchhike)
= Landstreicher
wand≠ Wand (wall)
= Zauberstab
while≠ weil (because)
= während
whimper≠ Wimper (eyelash)
= winseln
wink≠ winken (to wave)
= zwinkern

How to avoid English-German False Friends

False friends vocabulary

False friends can certainly make for some entertaining misunderstandings when learning a new language. 

However, if you want to understand where translation errors are coming from and avoid them yourself, when learning a new language, we can suggest the following tips.

1. Becoming aware of false friends

The first and most important step is to be aware of the fact that similar words do not necessarily have the same meaning. If you bear this in mind, you will check vocabulary before using it and avoid some mistakes.

2. Research false friends

Take time to make a list of the most common false friends in the language you are learning. Familiarise yourself with their actual meanings to avoid confusion. Our detailed list for German-English False Friends is a good starting point and you can look up similar lists for other languages as well.

3. Consider the context

Always consider the context in which a word is used. Sometimes the meaning of a word can vary depending on the context.

4. Use (online) dictionaries

Always have a reliable dictionary at hand. If you come across a new word or are unsure, look it up. Check the correct meaning and read example sentences.

5. Read and listen

Immerse yourself in books, newspapers, blogs or podcasts in the target language. Through regular reading and listening, you will expand your vocabulary and get used to using words correctly.

6. Learning idioms and expressions

False friends can also appear in idioms and expressions. Be aware that their literal translation may not correspond to the actual meaning. We regularly add typical English idioms on a wide variety of topics to our English vocabulary blog.

7. Attend language courses

Take English language courses to get professional guidance and check your progress. A qualified teacher can help you recognise false friends and practise using them correctly. If you are interested in an online English course, please contact us today. We will be happy to advise you in detail and put together a free offer tailored to your needs.

Practice makes perfect

Memorise the most common English-German false friends or the false friends that exist in your mother tongue and in English. Try to practise the vocabulary as often as you can. This way you will notice progress and be able to avoid embarrassing blunders in English in the future.

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