10 false friends in English and German

Falsche Freunde – also known as false cognates – are words that look and/or sound identical in both languages but have different meanings.

On your journey towards German fluency, false friends may lead to embarrassing situations, but thankfully the Gymglish team is here to help preserve your precious dignity.

We have compiled a list of 10 wörter that may sound similar in German and English, but have devilishly different meanings. How diabolical indeed. Enjoy!

Gift / Gift

On your next trip to Düsseldorf, you may find your German friendship cut short after you offer them a gift on your way to the airport. Simply put, gift in German describes poison. In the future, you might want to use Geschenk instead.

German EnglishNot to be confused with Which translates in German as
GiftpoisongiftGeschenk

Example: Wussten Sie, dass Charles Sobhraj seinen Gästen Rattengift gab?

Translation: Did you know Charles Sobhraj gave rat poison to his guests?

Fabrik / Fabric

This next Falscher Freund is quite tricky, but then again taking online German courses is a dangerous game, and you knew the risks coming in. In German, the word Fabrik doesn’t refer to a piece of cloth but rather a factory, closer to the sense of “manufacturing” or “fabricating”. The German translation for “fabric” is stoff.

German EnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in German as
FabrikfactoryfabricStoff

Example: Diese Fabrik macht die besten Pfeffernüsse – Sie müssen eine probieren!

Translation: This factory makes the best Pfeffernüsse – you have to try one!

Spenden / Spend

Are you a spend like a sailor kind of person? We’re not here to judge, it’s what society demands of us. We just want to remind you that spend in German is far from its English counterpart. Spenden actually means “to donate”, while ausgeben refers to the act of spending money.

German EnglishNot to be confused with Which translates in German as
Spenden(to) donate(to) spendausgeben

Example: Julia hat letztes Jahr 200 € an ein Katzenheim gespendet, sie ist so großzügig!

Translation: Julia donated €200 to a cat shelter last year, she’s so generous!

Gymnasium / Gym

When traveling to a German-speaking country, you may be surprised to find young ones spend a great amount of time at the Gymnasium. Little did you know that they are exercising their brains rather than their muscles. That’s because in German, Gymnasium means “high school”. If rock-hard pecs and toned glutes is your thing, visit your local turnhalle instead.

German EnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in German as
Gymnasiumhigh schoolgymTurnhalle/Fitnesstudio

Example: Marcus hat sich gerade in seinem neuen Gymnasium eingeschrieben, ich hoffe, er kommt dort mit seinen neuen Freunden zurecht.

Translation: Marcus just enrolled in his new high school, I hope he’ll get on with his new friends there.

Rente / Rent

It’s that time of the month again – and no we’re not talking about the Word of the Month but the big payout – rent. You’ll be surprised to know that German speakers will use the term rente to refer to a pension, whilst mieten is the word to use if you want to talk about the monthly sum to your landlord or landlady in exchange for a roof over your head.

German EnglishNot to be confused with Which translates in German as
RentepensionrentMieten

Example: Meine Großeltern haben das Glück, jeden Monat eine großzügige Rente zu bekommen.

Translation: My grandparents are lucky to receive a generous pension each month.

Winken / Wink

While everybody can winken, not everybody can wink. In any case, in German, winken doesn’t describe a knowing movement with the eye, but the act of waving one’s hand. If you must wink, and want to brag about it, you can use the word zwinkern.

German EnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in German as
Winken(to) wave(to) winkZwinkern

Example: Ich kann es nicht erwarten, dass diese Pandemie vorbei ist – ich habe das Winken satt und möchte einfach jeden umarmen.

Translation: I can’t wait for this pandemic to be over – I’m fed up waving and just want to hug everyone.

Fast / Fast

Want to finish this article as fast as possible? Hang in there, we’re fast done. German speakers will use the adjective fast to say that they have almost completed an action or task. The adjective “fast” in English translates as the classic schnell in German.

German EnglishNot to be confused with Which translates in German as
Fastalmost, soonfastSchnell

Example:

Sind Sie mit Ihrer Wunderbla-Lektion schon fertig? 

– Fast! Nur noch ein Grammatiktest fehlt.

Translation: 

– Are you done with your Wunderbla lesson yet? 

– Almost! Just one grammar test to go.

Brand / Brand

This next false friend is likely to get you fired upon. While one would use “brand” in English to refer to the true icons of our society, ie:  of their favorite corporate entity, Germans use the word marke. Beware, as the word brand in German actually means “fire”.

German EnglishNot to be confused with Which translates in German as
BrandfirebrandMarke

Example: Der Brand in unserer Wohnung hat alle meine Ölgemälde ruiniert. Das nächste Mal werde ich in weniger brennbare Kunst investieren.

Translation: The fire that occurred in our apartment ruined all of my oil paintings. Next time I’ll invest in less flammable art.

Bekommen / Become

Objectively the most confusing false friend the German language has to offer. In German, bekommen means “to get” or “to receive” something, while werden is used to talk about someone becoming something. 

German EnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in German as
Bekommen(to) get(to) becomeWerden

Example: IchIch bekomme etwas Sauerkraut, gefolgt von einem Stück Gugelhupf bitte.

Translation: I’ll get some Sauerkraut followed by a slice of Gugelhupf, please.

Dick / D***

The difference between the German dick and the English “d***” may pop up unexpectedly.

German EnglishNot to be confused with Which translates in German as
Dickthick, fat, heavyd***Schwanz, Penis

Chef / Chef

If the recent lockdown periods have taught us anything, it’s that each and every one of us can now proudly call ourselves a chef (or star baker). Say this to a German person and your sentence takes on a new meaning. In German, chef means “boss”. Should you want to make reference to a chef – as in a cook in a restaurant – you should use the word küchenchef, literally a kitchen chef.

German EnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in German as
ChefbosschefKüchenchef

Example: Mein Chef hat mir letzten Monat eine Gehaltserhöhung gegeben, ich kann es kaum erwarten, mir das Pony zu kaufen, das ich schon immer haben wollte.

Translation: My boss gave me a pay rise last month, I can’t wait to buy that pony I’ve always wanted.

Bonus 1: Wand / Wand

This last false cognate is likely to trip you up in ways you had never imagined. In German, wand actually means “wall” – and if you want to talk about a magic wand – in which context we couldn’t possibly say – zauberstab is the way to go.

German EnglishNot to be confused withWhich translates in German as
WandwallwandZauberstab

Bonus 2: Mist / Mist 

This last false cognate is a bit hazy. You would think mist would refer to morning fog – but beware, as in German, the word actually describes “manure” or animal waste.

German EnglishNot to be confused with Which translates in German as
MistcrapmistNebel

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