False Friends: 15 Examples How the German Language Is Trying to Kill You

“Oh yeah, those are the exact same thing.” — Photo Credit: Kirby Kerr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rotofugi/) — Subject to CC 2.0 license. (Hue and contrast edited.)

False friends are pairs of words in two languages which look or sound identical, but are wildly different in meaning. The false friends between German and English are hilarious, and in some cases, lethal.

What follows is a list of 15 German nouns and their incredibly different translations in English:

  1. Das Gift
    In America, we know exactly what gifts are: Nicely wrapped boxes full of goods made in poor countries. In German, however, das Gift means poison. Straight up, rat-killing, slug-shrinking poison. If you want to say gift in German, you have to say das Geschenk — and I agree; the German version sounds more like a tool used to stab someone in prison.
  2. Der Rat
    Rats — those filthy little rodents which helped spread bubonic plague throughout Europe in the Middle Ages — now kept primarily as pets by high school nerds with Cheeto fingers. Unfortunately, der Rat means advice or counsel in German. Actually, that’s kind of perfect; lots of government branches in Germany are named using this root word, like der Bundesrat (federal council), which is just full of rats…
  3. Der Stapler
    Remember Milton from Office Space, with his bright red Swingline stapler? Well, before you go burning your workplace to the ground over one of these things, remember, in German der Stapler means forklift or stacker truck, so if your boss screams, “Achtung! Stapler!” don’t just stand there laughing — fucking run.
  4. Der Quark
    If you’re a huge nerd like me, the word quark immediately makes you think of the Ferengi bar owner from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (Who, by the way, was the best character on the show — I will fight you over this.) If you’re a smarter nerd than me, quark makes you think of the elementary particles which combine to form things like protons and neutrons. Anyway, in German, der Quark means cheese curd, and it tastes like really thin yogurt with all of the fun and joy removed.
  5. Der Hang
    Depending upon my mood, the word hang will either remind me of hanging out — like I did in the mid-’90s — or the verb to hang, like from a noose. (Generally it’s the latter, because gallows humor is the only thing which alleviates my crippling preoccupation with death.) In German, however, der Hang means a slope or inclination. Isn’t that boring? I would so much rather think about death by hanging and the hilarious boner it gives you.
  6. Der Mist
    Picture it: A beautiful meadow just as the sun is coming up. The air is crisp and cold. Red and yellow leaves are scattered across the grass. A gentle mist is drifting from the trees, moving across the ground and tickling your toes. It’s a beautiful day to be alive. No. Just, no. Der Mist means dung or manure.
  7. Der Pickel
    Pickles are awesome, right? They’re delicious — all bumpy and green — and you can wiggle them in front of your genitals like a Martian dick. But that’s not what the word means in German. Der Pickel is a zit or pimple, which, if you think about it, is way more revolting than my freakishly green weenie. “Kiss the tip!”
  8. Der Smoking
    Sounds like it has something to do with cigarettes, right? Maybe cigars or pipes? Something that really gives cancer the old middle finger. That’s what I thought, until I discovered der Smoking actually means tuxedo. Not even close! And now that I know what it means, I can’t stop picturing James Bond in a tuxedo smoking a cigarette. Just stinkin’ his tailored suit up real good, like a true asshole.
  9. Die Robe
    As an American, the word robe brings to my mind a soft garment worn immediately after a shower. There are fancy robes, like the ones Hugh Hefner wears, and shitty robes, like the ones your dad used to wear — you know, the thin, faded kind, which would, without fail, give you an eye full of his cock and balls every time he sat down on the couch. *Shudder.* Thankfully, in German, die Robe is an evening gown, and that is a mental image which does not make my right eyelid twitch.
  10. Die Lust
    Oh, this one’s gotta be good, right? Probably something naughty. Shunned or illegal, at the very least. Nope. Die Lust means interest or inclination. Isn’t that just lame as hell? On the plus side, in German, you can walk up to a woman and literally ask if she has any ‘lust’ to go out with you. That’s pretty hardcore. Might as well ask if she’s lubed up and ready to make a porno.
  11. Die Nutte
    Sounds like nuts or Nutella to me, so frankly I like where this word is headed already. Unfortunately, die Nutte means hooker or prostitute in German. Can you imagine asking your waiter or waitress for some extra Nutella, only you totally blow it with your American accent? Nothing like a totally unexpected insult to ruin someone’s double shift: “Excuse me. May I please have some more of this delicious hazelnut spread, you filthy whore?”
  12. Der Puff
    I get it, innocent stuff, like “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” cream puffs, and Puff Daddy — or whatever the hell he called himself before he turned into a beautiful butterfly. No, der Puff isn’t innocent at all; it’s a whorehouse or brothel. This one is so misleading, it’s like sitting down to watch an animated movie with your kids, only to discover you’ve brought home some hardcore hentai, complete with throbbing tentacle dicks and helpless girls who never fail to show you their undies.
  13. Der Tripper
    Sounds like Jack Tripper from Three’s Company to me! This word is sure to result in comic high jinks after a simple mix-up forces a hapless bachelor to inexplicably trip over every god damned thing in the apartment. No Sir! In German, der Tripper is gonorrhea or “the clap.” Man, what I wouldn’t pay to see John Ritter alive again, screaming as he falls down the stairs, “Mother of God, it burns when I peeeeeeeeeeee…!”
  14. Die Parole
    This is what happens after you get out of prison, right? Where you prove you’re ready to reenter the population by having absolutely no fun at all? In Germany, die Parole actually means password or slogan, so if you want to talk about being released from prison, you have to say, die Bewährung. (Great. Now I can’t stop thinking about how many of our devoted readers might be ex-convicts…)
  15. Der After
    Yeah, I get it. After. But after what? Well, after my puckering butthole, that’s what. Seriously. In German, der After means anus. Isn’t that awesome? I can’t wait to go back to the gym tomorrow, hit the showers and show everyone what comes after my butt cheeks. “Run, hobbits! The Eye of Sauron is upon you!”

If you would like to read another post about my experiences learning the German language, check out this one: The Absolute Best (and Weirdest) German Integration Class I Ever Had



47 thoughts

  1. God help me – I JUST found another one. I’m translating student information for an upcoming exchange, and an American boy plays the bassoon. German word: Fagott!
    Shit! These are middle school kids!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language shows that “gift” in both languages come from a common root word. Think about it: a present comes with an obligation to show gratitude or to give the giver a present at some later point. That is to say, the poison of gifts is obligation.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your point number 1 reminds me of a story about the Grandmother of my mother-in-law. After WWII American planes dropped boxes of food to the people in the area around Wuerzburg and written all over the boxes was “GIFT”. Naturally the people in the area were a little wary about eating food that was marked gift. My wife’s great grandmother, being a pretty clear thinking lady apparently, didn’t think it meant what everyone thought it meant. SO she decided to test it out on her dog. When the dog lived she figured it was safe to eat.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ooh, I like words that are all like twins in different languages, yet one can never know if both of the twins are ‘good’ or if one or both are ‘evil’.
    Kind of like ‘uroda’ in Polish is ‘beauty’, but in Russian that’d be ‘ugly’ and so on :D


  5. I’m German and my husband is American and one of his favorites are the signs on the Autobahn that say ‘Gute Fahrt!’, which in German just means ‘Have a good drive!’. Americans, however, could interpret it as ‘Have a good fart!’ ;-)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I lived in Germany 7 years and I have to say the “Ausfahrt” autobahn signs never got old. There’s an undying 10 year old in all of us.

      There is a serious safety hazard in labeling emergency exits, “Notausgang”.
      If you know “ausgang” is “exit” you might think that’s not the exit since it clearly says it’s not… :)


  6. Great list! When I was learning English at school we used to laugh our heads off over: “Waiter, I will become a steak.” I live in England with my English partner and he loves ‘mushy’ peas with his fish and chips. That’s something I would never ever order. Just the thought makes me gip.


  7. > in German, die Robe is an evening gown,

    Not, I mean, like, really: “die Robe” ist that black gown worn by judges and lawyers in a law court. Although SOME German courts have allowed lawyers, after some discussion, to only wear suit and tie when the weather is hot. But not the judges, and maybe that’s why some courtal rules seem to be taken under presserure.


  8. As an American who is struggling to learn German, it cracks me up that I already know some German words because there is so much Yiddish slang in American English. Schleppen means “to haul something around”! Schmutz means dirt! But there is a very important false friend… Schmuck means something VERY different in Yiddish.


    1. And you shouldn’t forget that “abschleppen” (to tow away) has two very different meanings in German, the one is, to take a girl with you for a one night stand, and the other one is, to tow a car. It is recommended, although not completely illegal if you don’t, to have a “Abschleppseil” in the trunk.

      I’m not going into details like an “Abschlepphaken”; you’ll work it out.


  9. LOL!!
    Things I am fighting with ever since I decided to write in english…
    Always good for a hysterical laughter inmidst of a dramatic action scene – and some frown on my reader´s face…
    Thanks for sharing! MAde my day :D


  10. I think Der Rat is a perfect term for politician.

    Married to a Brit, I’ve just been trying to explain Cockney Rhyming Slang over on my blog Wit’s End.


  11. *giggle* Nice dictionary for “beginners”. But I know what you mean. Sometimes it’s good to know what certain similar sounding words mean. *grin* Nicely written. :-)


  12. When I heard people exclaiming ‘Prost!’ at each other at the New Year’s Eve party I giggled a bit, since ‘prost’ in Romanian means ‘idiot’. Also ‘putze’ sounds exactly like ‘tiny dick’ in Romanian. I will probably find more of these funny ones once I get more and more exposed to the language. I found out what ‘mushi’ means when I was complaining to my boyfriend about the questionable mashed potatoes I had just cooked.


  13. I joked with my German friend that I was going to ‘steal’ her new baby that I was cuddling at the time. She gave me a funny look as my comment filtered through her German brain into her English one. Turns out that ‘steal’ sounds a lot like ‘stillen’ which is German for ‘Breast Feed.’
    We’re close friends, but not that close…


      1. I live in Viet Nam and we don’t have many false friends, but the tonal nature of the language makes lots of hilarious misunderstandings – the words for Grapefruit is almost identical to the slang for Penis. I love Grapefruit juice and order it regularly, the ensuing laughter follows me down the street.


  14. As a Hungarian having an American background speaking English as a second languge have been living in Germany for a year struggling with German language learning and however my English is far not good (and is getting worse since I do not practice it) my German is even worse….so it was hilarious to read this Article and also the comments. Thank you for making my day.


  15. Quark? R u Serious? I think you missed a ll episodes with super-hot-alien-chick jetsia dex ;) at least (wisely you choose ;) ) star trek before star-candycotton-wars.


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