So we all know what a false friend is like in real life, but what exactly is a "false friend" in terms of grammar? Some words in different languages aren't really "friends" because knowing the definition of one in your native language won't help you with the definition of the other in the language that is foreign to you. You might be familiar with the idea of a false friend but heard it called a 'false cognate'.
According to Wiktionary, a false friend or false cognate is "a word in a language that bears a deceptive resemblance to a word in another language but in fact has a different meaning." In other words, just because a word in another language looks similar to one you know in your native language, it doesn't mean that they mean the same thing.
So let's look at one of the more interesting examples I found in my research, which is the English word bras versus the French word bras, which means "arm," as in the part of the body.
"And then this girl, she looks me up and down," Dum Dum said, winking at the other guys, "and says, 'Please release my bras tout suite,' right? And I said, 'Don't worry, darlin', I will soon enough.'"
Peggy didn't bother looking up from her report. "I presume you were holding her arm and, when you didn't let go, she then slapped you, Timothy?"
"Uh, yeah, she did, Peg. How did you know that? Were you there?"
"No, but I'm pretty sure she was trying to get away from you, not be undressed by you."
In the references below, I've linked to some pages devoted to false friends in Spanish, German, and French. But what happens when you have a false friend within dialects of the same language? Our example here would be the word "table", which has entirely different meanings in British English and American English. Per Merriam-Webster, to table something in American means to "to remove (as a parliamentary motion) from consideration indefinitely," whereas the British meaning is "to place on the agenda." Let's see how Colonel Phillips and Peggy Carter might have a misunderstanding in this instance of common language, different meanings.
Colonel Phillips shifted in his seat as he checked his watch. "All right, everyone, it's getting late and I need my beauty rest, so let's just table the discussion on deployment of the new recruits. We'll meet up again in the morning after breakfast."
Peggy started to rifle through her papers, then pulled the map closer. "Well, I think that this is utter shite. You can't put green recruits on the--"
"Carter, what are you doing?"
"I beg your pardon?" she asked, blinking at him. "You said we were tabling the deployment, so that's what I'm doing."
He glared at a sergeant who snickered, then waved his hand dismissively. "You idiots get on out of here. Carter, I said we were tabling it until the morning."
"But that's not--" She scowled and began pulling her papers together, hoping he didn't see the faint blush of embarrassment coloring her cheeks. "You Americans butchered a perfectly good language when you broke off into your own country."
It really all boils down to the simple concept of "If you don't know what a words means, regardless of the language, look it up or ask someone."
References & Examples
- False friend @ Wikipedia
- false friend @ Wiktionary
- partial false friend @ Wiktionary
- fasle friend @ Cambridge Dictionaries Online
- table @ Merriam Webster
- 50 Spanish-English False Friend Words
- False Friends in English and German Vocabulary
- False Friends (faux amis) in English and Frend with an example of correct use