False friends in English: Can I have a rabbit?

rabbit in grass

Can I have a rabbit?

The Easter holiday has come and gone, and now there are more sunny spring days ─ but in this post, I won't be talking about Easter or this cute bunny rabbit in the grass. Read on to see what kind of "rabbit" I mean.

 

"Can I have a rabbit?" comes from a wonderful story that Irene, one of my English students, told recently. Irene was visiting the U.S. with her mother. Since her mother speaks no English, Irene felt under pressure to make all the arrangements and translate things correctly.

 

While the two of them were sightseeing in San Francisco, they passed a stand selling T-shirts. The T-shirts themselves were very nice, but the prices were quite high. (No surprise in a tourist area!) And so Irene's mother was hoping that they could get a discount. She said to Irene, in German, "Frag ihn, ob wir einen Rabatt haben können."

 

Irene thought, "Rabatt, rabatt! How can I say that in English?" She said the first thing that came into her head, and asked, "Can we have. . . a rabbit?" The man behind the counter laughed and said, "Do you mean a discount?" It seems that Irene was not the first tourist to ask this question.

 

Irene turned bright red, but she managed to say yes, and they got their T-shirt with a small discount. End of story.

False friends: What are they?

The German word "Rabatt" and the English word "rabbit" sound and look almost the same, but they have completely different meanings. These two words are a classic case of "false friends." You think that the English word will help you, but you end up saying something you didn't want to say.

 

The expression "false friends" is something that you normally hear only when people talk about learning languages. The idea behind the expression is that a good friend offers you a helping hand and then really helps you, while these "false friend" words do not.

 

a helping hand

How can you avoid false friends?

First of all, just do your best and try not to worry too much about being perfect. Like the man at the T-shirt stand, people will usually help you when they see that you are trying to communicate in English. Making mistakes is a totally natural thing to do when you are learning a language (see my earlier blog post on this).

 

Still, you can make your life easier if you learn some of the most common false friends. Please note that these will be different depending on your native language. Try searching online for free resources; for example, this quiz about false friends is meant for German speakers.

 

Also, find a way to write down false friends that is easy to understand. Use colors if you can; here's an example. The green arrows show the correct translations, and the dotted red line shows the "false friend" connection. Experiment and see what system works for you.

So when it's Easter time next year, you will know that in English you say, "Happy Easter"─ without an "n" at the end!

 

Do you have a story about your "favorite" false friends? Please tell us about it; leave your comments  below.

Write a comment

Comments: 4
  • #1

    Anneliese (Thursday, 31 March 2016 13:43)

    I like this "false friend" because I hear it all the time in meetings: "My meaning is..." When I say, "My opinion is..." my colleagues try to correct me!

  • #2

    Elke Schmitz (Saturday, 02 April 2016)

    So here is my recent and false friends.
    I was painting a picture and wanted to bring in some meaningful words like Harmony, Love and also PEACE. Well, I miss spelled it and wrote PIECE instead since I've probably used that word more often during my time here in the USA.
    Peace= Frieden
    Piece= Stück

  • #3

    Kiki (Sunday, 10 April 2016 21:15)

    Here's another false friend: At a celebratory event, the CEO of a German company apparently promised his audience that his speech would be 'short and pregnant.' While a concise (= German 'prägnant') speech is surely a good thing, describing one as pregnant (= having an unborn baby growing inside its body) might cause some confusion. :-)

  • #4

    Fern Kushner (Tuesday, 12 April 2016 15:03)

    Thanks to everyone for the nice and funny stories!
    I thought of another one: Some years ago, shortly after I had moved to Germany, a German friend visited me at my apartment. I was moving around a lot, opening windows, getting him a drink, and so on, and he told me he was "irritiert." He meant that he felt confused by my jumping up and down, but I felt offended. Why was he irritated (=genervt), when I was only trying to make things nice for him?