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False friends

German and English are related languages with many words in common, but…

Achtung! Vorsicht! Pass auf!

Remember those expressions from last week?

Here are a few, selected from a long list, of words that can, and often do, catch us out:

Knowing that 'Gift' means poison in German, this picture [thanks, Kira auf der Heide / Unspash] takes on a sinister meaning...


In a lesson recently, the word spenden came up. It is a verb to do with money, ja, but it is not the straightforward translation of „to spend money“. That is ausgeben – a lovely separable German verb.

„Ich habe am Wochenende viel Geld ausgegeben.“ = I spent a lot of money at the weekend.

You will get nothing much in return if you spenden your money, other than a pleasant feeling of altruism, because spenden means to donate, in the charitable sense, rather than to spend, in the neutral sense. As is often the case, there is a related noun, die Spende = the donation.


Did you just read this subtitle with an English or German accent? You’d be correct either way.

The English took the Greek word gymnasium to mean a place of physical exercise, while the Germans took the same word (pronounced differently) to mean a place of mental exercise, i.e. a school. So what’s the word for a room full of dumbbells and tattooed musclemen? Ein Fitnessstudio of course. And yes, that’s three s’s in a row, thanks to the German rules of not cutting corners when compounding nouns.

Fun fact: ‘A healthy soul in a healthy body’ is the concept, ‘Anima Sana in Corpore Sano’ is the Latin phrase from which the running shoe ASICS takes its name.

Ein Gymnasium is not just any old school however. It’s the sort of school with the most intellectual stretching, while Realschule and Hauptschule are aimed at kids who do not necessarily aspire to continue their education at university level. Depending on which region you are in, you will also hear the words: Mittelschule, Sekundarschule and Gesamtschule for different types of high school.

This brings us onto the next falschen Freund: die Hochschule. If hoch = high and Schule = school, you’d be forgiven for thinking you could put them together to get yet another word for an establishment of secondary education, but Hochschule is a college or university.

The sea

When you learn a new word in German, it is advisable to learn the gender at the same time. There are sometimes clues: words ending in –e are often feminine; words borrowed from other languages are usually neuter and single-syllable nouns taken from verbs are usually masculine.

The Spanish word for sea is ‘mar’ and is masculine, unless you are a superstitious sailor, and/or live in one of a very small minority of Spanish-speaking countries, in which case it is feminine. But what about the German word See? Is it der See (masc) or die See (feminine)?

Ha! It’s both. No, they are not interchangeable; it does not depend on which community you identify with. When masculine it means lake, and when feminine it means ocean. Maybe this is the wrong place to attempt to explain this by exploring the intrinsic differences between masculine lakes and female oceans: “shallow and knows its limits”, versus “deep and unpredictable, wild and dangerous, but beautiful”.


“How very becoming”. This gives a clue to the vagaries of how words can change their meanings even within languages, let alone between them.

The German verb bekommen does not mean to become. It means to receive. Werden is the word for to become, but it is also used as the auxiliary verb for the future tense and in passive structures. That’s a whole lesson right there on one word!

Gift shop

Potential comedy here! Das Gift = the poison, so imagine what German tourists think when they rock up in central London!


This has nothing to do with light morning fog, which is ‘der Nebel’.

If you are playing darts and completely miss the board, you might exclaim “Missed!” Don’t do this in Germany! ‘Der Mist’ = dung, manure, and is not exactly vulgar, but rather uncouth!


In German, just like in many other European languages, ‘(die) Billion’ means the same amount as ‘trillion’ in US English. I’m not going to start listing noughts! The German word for a thousand million, an American ‘billion’ is ‘(die) Milliarde’.


This is a very common adverb, which does not mean eventually. Rather, it is used to mean ‘in the event that’, or ‘probably/potentially’, and is often shortened to ‘evtl’ in text messages.

Ich komme eventuell mit dem Zug

= I'll probably/potentially be coming by train

‘Eventually’ translates as ‘schliesslich’ or, if you want to introduce a level of exasperation: ‘endlich!’

Ach! Du bist endlich da!

= You got here eventually then! / Finally! You're here

I've said this before and I'll say it again: almost always, the adverb is the least important part of a sentence. Try omitting the adverb from the sentence and see how much the meaning changes. Not much, I'll bet.

In brief

Der Brief = letter, nothing to do with being quick or underpants…

Here is a brief list of some words that might catch you out, as they look so similar. The column in pink is the German word for what you might expect from the false friend in the orange column.

We could go on all day with these, but I hope I have given you a flavour of how, despite German and English being sister languages that share an awful lot of words, there are also a good few to beware of!

Andrew Wenger, Founder and Director of SameSky Languages

There are places in our online German groups at beginner, intermediate and advanced level, designed for people like you with some experience of having learned this wonderful language, but have "viel vergessen". Please contact me here if you would like to find out more about joining one of these very friendly and welcoming groups, so that we can help you rekindle that knowledge. We start the new term September 5th...

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