I recently went to a concert in Barcelona given by the Canadian-born singer and composer, Rufus Wainwright. In between songs he told his audience some of the things that had happened to him in different countries while on tour with particular reference to the confusion that sometimes arises when you don’t speak the language. One of the stories really made me laugh, but many of the people in the Spanish speaking audience could not quite understand the joke. It was a perfect example of false friends or false cognates.
Let me first tell you the story and then let’s look at some of these false friends.
Mr. Wainwright had to visit a Spanish physiotherapist for back pain. The physiotherapist spoke a little English but was by no means fluent. During the massage, the physiotherapist told Mr. Wainwright to “inspire” and “expire” in order to control his breathing. What he should have said was “breathe in” and “breathe out”, but he chose “inspire” because that means “breathe in” in Spanish. However, in English “inspire” means to make someone feel capable of achieving something and “expire” – well that’s much more serious – means something that has come to an end or has died. Mr. Wainwright wasn’t quite sure if he was achieving something great or was about to die!
The simple confusion over words that look the same in two languages but mean completely different things happens very often and can cause a lot of laughs. Watch this video for more examples and let us know if you have more you want to share with us.