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What Trump means to Brits and other false friends February 27, 2017

Posted by Pete B in Uncategorized.

Warning: this post is about linguistics, miscommunication, and things that some Christians prefer not to talk about.


There are many words which we assume we understand but which turn out to mean something quite different.

I’m currently relearning long forgotten French duolingo_logo_with_owl-svgwith the aid of the excellent Duolingo and have come across a lot of words that look the same in English and French and some that aren’t.

Linguistically the confusion between familiar words and alternate facts about their meaning is often referred to as “False friends”.

According to the wikipedia entry on false friends the toddler in the advert above is simply saying “that, that, that” in Dutch. Wikipedia can occasionally be inaccurate so you can also read about false friends on a BBC language page and on http://inktank.fi/10-english-words-mean-something-else-languages/ , where I first learned that the word ‘gift’ means poison in German. Apparently it means married in Icelandic, and either “married” or “poison” in Norwegian.


False friends can occur not only between different languages but also between different forms of the same language.

One example is of course the word “trump” which has a range of meanings to  Americans and other speakers of the English language.

I suspect the entry in the urban dictionary may demonstrate the challenge of crowd sourcing dictionaries…


…but the entry at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/trump  does include a commonly understood meaning of the word in the UK.  trump-verb

I don’t know in how many other languages ‘trump’ already meant something unpleasant, prior to ‘President Trump’.

Although only retweeted once this tweet was apparently seen over 4,700 times –  to many the connection will have been a mystery.

It’s not the post I would have preferred to get so many views, but I don’t think it lost me too many real friends.

Here’s a few more items I found on twitter under #falsefriends

Meanwhile,  half recognised words and misunderstanding is not just a source of mild amusement, it can lead to genuine confusion.

An example I heard of nearly 20 years ago was of a pastor who assumed everyone in his church understood the Swahili Bible he used, until he was encouraged to do a little research.

When asked to explain the meaning of the Swahili verse saying that Jesus told his disciple to get into a boat, a few people thought he was asking his teachers to plant milk.

This and other evidence that people were only getting part of the message inspired the pastor to get involved in translating the Bible into the language people knew best.

So to summarize: languages are complicated, things aren’t always as they seem, and knowing a language ‘quite well’, sometimes just isn’t good enough.


1. John Hamilton - February 27, 2017

Like it, Peter! Love that Sabaot story! I’m getting the seeds of a blog coming on… OK if I quote and link to above?
As a retirement present, Ruth bought me a 10 week French Conversation class at Queen’s Univerity, Belfast – learning a lot about faux amis. Blessings, John


2. P, J, or J - February 27, 2017

Thanks John. Quote and link at will. Will email you with seeds of another blog too.


3. On buying goats and planting milk… | John 20:21 - April 5, 2017

[…] Peter Brassington’s blog on the subject of linguistic false friends has prompted me to blog. In the era of fake news and […]


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