Library or bookshop? Fabric or factory? Avoiding common false friends

by Liz Walter

Maskot/GettyImages

Sometimes words look the same or similar in two different languages but have different meanings. We call these words ‘false friends’ because they seem as though they will be ‘friendly’ and easy to learn, but they trick us into making mistakes. In this post, I will discuss a few false friends with English: I have tried to pick ones that are problematic for speakers of several other languages.

A simple one is library. This is a place where you go to borrow or look at books. If you want to buy books, you go to a bookshop (UK)/bookstore (US).

An English word that often causes problems is actual (and the related adverb actually). This means ‘real’ or ‘not imaginary’ and it often adds emphasis to the thing it describes. To talk about things that happen or exist at the present time, you need the words current or currently.

I don’t want online help. I want to speak to an actual person.

He never actually met the president.

My current boss is very young.

Currently, there are no jobs available here.

Another common cause of confusion is eventual (and the adverb eventually). This means ‘in the end’ or ‘after a long period of time’. To talk about the possibility that something may happen, you need to use a word like possible or a modal verb such as might:

Eventually we reached an agreement.

The eventual cost of the building was much higher than expected.

We have a possible solution for your problem.

We might have to hire more staff.

A rather subtle false friend is sympathetic. When we describe someone as ‘sympathetic’, we usually mean that they care about our problems and are sorry about them. We use adjectives such as friendly or nice to describe someone we like. English does use ‘sympathetic’ to describe someone we like, but this is rather formal, and is more often applied to characters in books, movies, etc than to real people:

Adam wasn’t very sympathetic when I hurt my leg.

I met your sister. She’s really nice!

The doctor is portrayed as a sympathetic character.

I’ll end with a few more simple false friends. In English, your parents are only your mother and father: all the other people in your family are relations or relatives. Fabric is what your clothes are made from – the place where they are made is a factory. Money consists of paper money and coins – if you want to ask someone to give you coins for your paper money, you need to ask for change. Finally, if you are embarrassed, you are feeling shy or ashamed, but you are not pregnant (having a baby)!

So be careful with these words. There are lots of false friends waiting to trick us, and you will probably be able to add more examples to the ones I’ve discussed here.

31 thoughts on “Library or bookshop? Fabric or factory? Avoiding common false friends

  1. Wiz lee(or #19880)

    Thoughts regarding the previous post:(warning: It’s a long list)
    I don’t have an ideal job in my mind yet, here’s why. Although I have(um…) decent capabilities: A lifeguard certification(just one, I get to know the red cross society more) and I’m going for the CPE in March. I’m also good at calligraphy and table tennis. And I don’t regret revealing before that I’m 12. However, I have Asperger’s and ADHD(but I’m pretty normal, like being in my right mind and completely sane), not to mention really poor observation and responsibility. That’s…a real minus. And bad news: Homework requires my dream job, and I just can’t decide upon one. Some help, please?

  2. Kamala

    I’m an Indian nd I find this post really helpful. Thank you so much. My Prof taught me a few false friends like
    commend nd condemn
    immediately nd suddenly
    uninterested nd disinterested
    grin nd grim ( known ones )
    Am I getting them right?

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, you are getting them right, but I wouldn’t exactly call these ‘false friends’ because I’m assuming they’re not similar to your own first language. We often call these words ‘confusibles’ because it’s easy to get them confused.

  3. Arturo Leo

    False friends really trick us.
    We can mention “traduttore traditore”, as well advised by San Jerónimo, and Alfonso X (the wise),does not mean translators commit a deliberate treason, fidelity in their job can not reach exact meanig of the original term or word. Deutch “Shadenfreude”, has no exact translation in English, neither budist concept “moodita”, or russian “toska”. Best way of understand and enjoy a frase or meaning of a word is to use it in the original language.

  4. Weituy Babouth

    Liz Walter

    I been tricked, but after I read the post i wouldn’t be tricked into mistake again . Thanks for salvation.

  5. Thank you, Liz, for putting together another helpful article.
    “Currently, there are no jobs available here.”

    I think it means there are really no jobs available.
    “The recruiting advert has been put up on the Internet, but there are no jobs available actually/currently. It is just a way to attract customers.”
    Do actually/currently both make sense in the sentence?

    Thank you

    1. Liz Walter

      If I saw ‘Currently, there are no jobs available’, I would take it literally, i,e, that there aren’t any jobs at the moment (but there might be in the future).

  6. Federica

    In Italian the word “embarassed” has a quite similar meaning ,
    all the others you wrote are “false friends”.
    Thank you Liz walter for your interesting blog!
    I’m a keen reader of this blog 🙂

    1. Federica

      In your last post “On the edge of my seat: talking about excitement” you wrote the word “exhilarating”. I think it’s another false friend -or quite false, I suppose- because in Italy when we say that something has been exhilarated it means that it has made you laught because it vwas very ridiculous.
      We are surrounding by false friends… 🙂

  7. Luis Fletcher

    El mié., 6 feb. 2019 1:02 p. m., About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog escribió:

    > Liz Walter posted: “by Liz Walter Sometimes words look the same or similar > in two different languages but have different meanings. We call these words > ‘false friends’ because they seem as though they will be ‘friendly’ and > easy to learn, but they trick us into making ” >

  8. Kamala

    Actually, the different languages part got out of my mind. Now I understand that they are confusibles. Thank u for ur guidance, Liz Walter

  9. Sujon Sn

    Why this blog post and other blogs aren’t opening in Chrome or Mozilla Firefox browsers

    On Wed, Feb 6, 2019, 18:04 About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog Liz Walter posted: “by Liz Walter Sometimes words look the same or similar > in two different languages but have different meanings. We call these words > ‘false friends’ because they seem as though they will be ‘friendly’ and > easy to learn, but they trick us into making ” >

  10. Fercho

    I’m actually graceful with Liz for writing this current blog. I think that people who help others to improve about skills or to save problems are very sympathetic, so I feel those people friendly and actually It worths to give thanks and It’s not embarrassed to me recognizing their great labour spreading a good use of English.

    1. SuzannaEtc

      Fercho — It’s kind of you to thank Liz for helping people improve their language skills and working to facilitate good usage of English. In this context, I think you mean that you are ‘grateful’ to her; ‘graceful’ means physically (usually physically) pleasing or attractive in line, proportion, or movement.

  11. Clara

    Hi Liz, and thank you very much for your articles!
    I AM argentinian and I always have to think carefully which is the meaning of sensible and sensitive. Are these false friends?

    1. Liz Walter

      Well in English, I would call those ‘confusibles’, but in several languages, words that sound like ‘sensible’ mean ‘sensitive’, so the English word and the foreign word are false friends.

  12. huyquangha

    Thank you Liz walter for your interesting blog!
    I’m Huy- an avid reader of yours 🙂
    I’m confused about the last part you wrote above:
    “Finally, if you are embarrassed, you are feeling shy or ashamed, but you are not pregnant (having a baby)!”
    Could you tell me more about it? What is the relation between Embarrassed and Pregnant?

  13. Andrei

    i’m learning english
    i’m from Brazil
    but, this post help me, the to use the words well.
    i’m in elementary “level” but i really think that i will to learn english eventually
    thanks very much for help each us!

  14. claudia peretto

    I am also a student and an Italian student: false friends are my despair:. sensible, trivial, fabric, sensitive, delusion, educated person, rumours, novel, spectacles and so on….When I speak English if the word that I want to use is too similar to an Italian one…..crisis!!! Thanks for your help!

    1. Arturo Leo

      And more, Claudia, have you heard “false friends” between Italian and Spanish?, some of them same spelling or almost alike, yet quiet different meaning,Both languages directly derived from Latin,and yet…

  15. Simonetta

    Many of the false friends you mentioned are very common for an Italian learner of English … un saluto dall’ Italia , and , surtout, thank you for your clear lesson !

  16. Sholah

    Thank you for another piece of good ol’ educatonal fun, Liz! Considering Russian language, which, it seems to me, borrowed a substantial part of its foreign vocabulary from German and French, and the other major part from English, but in 80-90, when nobody cared much about the actual meaning of a word, if it sounds cool enough, the amount of such “false friends” becomes enormous indeed… Oh well, I do enjoy a bit of challenge every now and then ^_^ All the best and keep up the amazing work!

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