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Borrower Beware! False Friends and English Loan Words
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on Language Interference

Borrowing between languages

The practice of taking a word from a foreign language and introducing it into another is called 'borrowing' and the words thus 'borrowed' are known as Loan Words. It is worth mentioning from the outset that, as David Crystal observed in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (CUP, 1997, p332), since no language ever took a word from another language with the intention of one day returning it, and since such words are never returned, even once they have outstayed their welcome in the borrowing language, both of these terms are misnomers. It is also important to understand that this is not a modern phenomenon brought about by globalization but has always taken place whenever different language communities come into contact with each other.

Words are often taken from other languages to fill lexical gaps - to provide names for new objects or phenomena. Thus, window was 'borrowed' by English from Old Norse via Danish in around 1200. But borrowed words also often compete with existing words in the borrowing language as different foreign languages come into and out of fashion, as the French language has in England over the centuries. This is why English has both cookery and cuisine, friendly and amiable, help and aid. Some loan words keep their foreign appearance, like the French bon vivant in English, while others are adapted to the orthography and pronunciation of the host language, like battery from Old French batterie. Another type are translated directly into the host language, creating loan translations or calques. This is how honeymoon became lune de miel in French. Curiously, having borrowed weekend at the beginning of the 20th century, French now attempts to avoid the Anglicism rather half-heartedly, by using the loan translation fin de semaine.

But perhaps the most important feature of the borrowing phenomenon for language learners and teachers alike is that once the word has been borrowed and, where appropriate, adapted orthographically, it becomes a part of the 'host language' and the speakers of that language can do with it what they will. And they do! Some loan words can be trusted and can be a real boost to the language learner's comprehension and vocabulary learning, but others are traps. There is, therefore, an alarming stock of false friends among words which look thoroughly trustworthy to the learner whose mother-tongue those words were borrowed from.


Loan words in English

English was once one of the most assiduous borrowers of words and has been borrowing words from French, for example, for more than 900 years. Here are some that spring immediately to mind: femme fatale, faux pas, déja vu, tête-a-tête, au fait, margarine and migraine. Even our old friend, faux ami is a frequently used French loan expression for the loan translation false friend. But French is not the only source of borrowed words in English. From German, for example, we borrowed Schadenfreude, Angst, Flak, Blitz, Rucksack, Kindergarten, and Vandal. And Italian gave us pasta, pizza, spaghetti, opera, mafia, pianissimo and ciao. It is to Spanish that we owe cockroach, though we did take the Spanish word cucaracha and adapt it to a more English pronunciation and spelling. And we borrow from other varieties of our own language too. US English gave us radar, blizzard, rattlesnake, and stunt (the noun), for example.

These days, however, English, and especially the US varieties of English, has become far more of a lender than a borrower.


English as a word lender

When it comes to borrowing words, linguistic receptiveness tends to go hand in hand with cultural receptiveness and this has certainly been the case in the history of English as a word lender. As a lender, English was a late starter. There is very little evidence of English influencing the languages of even its closest neighbours before the beginning of the 18th century. It was at this time that France, closely followed by Italy and then by other European nations, developed an enthusiasm for all things English, and this included words. A huge number of English loan words entered French and, directly or indirectly, via French, the other languages of Europe.

In the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st, globalization and the level of contact between countries has meant that English words have spread more widely and in greater number than ever before. This is largely due to the cultural and political predominance of the USA, in particular. These days, English words enter the languages of countries worldwide through pop and youth culture, technology (in particular, computers and the Internet), the media and advertising, among other channels. Governments all over the world, and particularly in South East Asia, have complained that there isn't time to translate these English words into the local language and so a hybrid of English and the local language develops, often referred to as 'Tinglish' (Thai and English) or 'Chinglish' (Chinese and English) for example. Borrowing can even lead to loan words outnumbering indigenous words, as they do in Korea (which borrows heavily from Chinese and English in particular) by an estimated ratio of 60% to 40%. In Iceland a board has been set up dedicated to translating words for new phenomena into more Icelandic-based words to prevent this happening.


English loan words as False Friends

With English words being so avidly and speedily absorbed into foreign languages either out of necessity or at the whim of fashion, and with borrowing being the free and ungoverned process it has always tended to be, interpretations of meaning are often quite mistaken or quite deliberately disregarded. The important thing, it seems, in very many cases, is not what the word being borrowed actually means, but quite simply, that it is an English word. It is worth remembering that English once gobbled up French in the same way.

Loans take a number of different forms, though many will fall into more than one category, and they can all lead to the creation of False Friends.

In many cases, the word or expression is taken into the receiving language wholesale with its spelling and orthography intact as an Anglicism but is then applied to something different. In German a Cracker is a computer hacker and a Catcher is a wrestler. In Swedish, a babysitter is a particular type of child's seat. And in a French car le starter is the choke, for example.

In other cases the word is adapted to the orthography and pronunciation of the borrowing language, as it is in Polish dres, which means tracksuit, or lunatyk, which means sleepwalker. In languages which do not have an identical or very similar writing system to English this is, of course, absolutely necessary.

A particularly common and curious case is where an English word with an -ing ending is used to create a new noun or (rarely) adjective in the borrowing language. These odd Anglicisms are often misleading. This is particularly common in French:

le footing jogging le dancing a dance hall
le brushing a blow-dry standing (adjective) luxury, deluxe
le parking a car park le living a living-room
le camping a campsite    

Robert J. Hill in A Dictionary of False Friends (Meeds, 1982) lists smoking as the term used for UK English dinner jacket (US English tuxedo) in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Turkish, Greek and Arabic. I suspect that there are also many more.

Sometimes an English word is shortened and the new shortened form is applied to the same thing or concept as the original longer word. Korean is a particularly avid shortener of English loan words, and by so doing creates an alarming number of false friends for the learner of English or Korean to beware of. Examples (showing the Korean word transliterated into the closest English word) and the corresponding meaning in Korean are listed below:

Korean English Korean English
super supermarket stainless stainless steel
sign signature health health club
over overcoat miss mistake
remote con remote control note notebook
driver screwdriver classic classical music
air con air conditioner machine sewing machine
apart apartment    

And it is not just Korean that uses shortening in its borrowings from English. French, for example, uses spot for English spotlight and le foot for football.

Allied to this type of loan word false friend are pseudo-Anglicisms where a language creates or adapts an English-looking word and applies it to something more or less predictable. For example, in German ein Handy is a mobile phone, although there is no such thing as a handy in English itself. Similarly, autostop is the French term for the activity of hitchhiking, doping is cheering in Polish, and in Swedish a freestyle is a personal stereo. These are not, strictly speaking, false friends, of course, because they have only very tenuous deceptive cognates in English, usually in a different part of speech, but their apparent Englishness can still elicit misplaced trust in the user. For example, a German learner of English might well refer to the contraceptive pill as the antibabypill based on misplaced trust in the pseudo-Anglicism used in German Antibabypille.

An added problem with some loan word false friends is that they often denote an object or concept in the same general semantic area of the lexicon, thus increasing their deceptive trustworthiness. They may have a broader, more general, meaning or a narrower, more specific meaning, but the problem is that they are more than likely to turn up in the same context as their false cognate. Some examples from Korean illustrate the potential for confusion:

Korean English Korean English
rouge lipstick one piece dress
manicure nail polish cassette cassette recorder
mansion luxury apartment building office building
hiking cycling stove heater
hip buttocks    


Dealing with loan word false friends

As with all of the false friends discussed in this series of articles the only real solution is to be aware of them, to look out for them, and to learn them. Teachers of English, particularly to beginners, need to raise learners' awareness of the existence of English-origin words in their mother tongues and, most importantly, of the fact that some can be trusted and some cannot. The French learner of English needs to be introduced to the fact that among the English words he/she already knows football does indeed mean football, but foot does not. Native speakers of South Asian languages need to be warned that while hotel does mean hotel in English, it does not also mean café or restaurant as it does as a loan word in their mother tongue.

Writers of courses and reference books for learners of English, too, need to be particularly careful to cover this facet of the English language; the fact that, these days, everybody knows a surprising number of English words but very few people know exactly what they mean in English.

And those of us who come into contact with non-native-speakers in the course of our daily lives need to be sensitive to the fact that misunderstandings can arise as a result of their using a borrowed word with its post-borrowing meaning. And if a speaker of a South Asian language offers to show you his backside, remember that he almost certainly means his back garden!


Further reading

For an informative overview of the growing concern caused worldwide by the 'threat' of global English see the roundup of language news stories for 2002 in the English Language Gazette at

For more on loan words in English, see John Ayto, Making Sense of Foreign Words in English (Edinburgh: W & R Chambers Ltd, 1991).

For language-specific outlines of the problems loan words can pose for the learner of English, see individual chapters in Learner English, eds. Michael Swan & Bernard Smith (CUP, 2001).

For a comprehensive study of Anglicisms in European languages see A Dictionary of European Anglicisms - A Usage Dictionary of Anglicisms in Sixteen European Languages, ed. Manfred Görlach (CUP, 2001).

Examples of English loan words in Korean are taken from a discussion of teaching methods suggested for the treatment of English loan words at


Next in the series

In the next issue I will discuss English loan words in Japanese and the problems they can cause for learners and teachers.