As a British citizen I can wholeheartedly appreciate the need to avoid social faux pas. Good manners and etiquette rules are ingrained within our culture, from thanking waiters when they provide us with food in a restaurant (surely a pre-requisite to eating out?), to lifting our little fingers as we drink tea. Therefore, there is nothing more humiliating for British people who are learning German than to be fooled by those pesky words we call ‘false friends’.
However, when native English speakers learn German it is easy to see why they get confused. They are introduced to seemingly innocent words which sound and look alike to their English counterparts. For example:
house Haus, garden Garten, to swim schwimmen, green grün
And this is not surprising considering that English and German are linguistically very close. However, native English speakers beware; false friends do exist in German, and they can creep up on you when you least expect it.
False Friends can fool you even when doing simple additions. One must be careful not to get billions mixed up with trillions when doing large sums. You see, in German a Billion is equivalent to a trillion in US numbers. In German, if you want to count in US trillions, you must use a German Milliarde. Confused yet? It get’s much more complicated…
When Christmas comes around it is a time for family, sharing, and of course the giving of presents. But make sure you give a Geschenk and not a Gift to your parents; otherwise they may become very wary of you. In German Gift means poison.
English-German false friends can ruin your chances with any potential love interest too. If asked by someone to get some preservative to make a jam, be sure to get Konservierungsmittel and not a Präservativ, otherwise you will find yourself red-faced at the checkout with a condom and one confused friend. And if you do try and cover the embarrassment up with a childish wink, make sure to zwinkern, otherwise you could find yourself waving goodbye to a friend. You see in German winken means to wave.