12 German Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

German and English share common roots, but there are tons of false cognates you’ll need to sidestep if you want to avoid embarrassment. Here are 12 of the most amusing (and kinda NSFW) German false friends.
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12 German Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

If you’re an English speaker who’s spent any amount of time navigating the German language, you’re probably aware that there’s a certain amount of winging it you can get away with if you’re, say, in Hamburg for a work trip and need to order something quickly off the menu (“Yes, er, one kaffee for me, and she’ll have der Salat.”). But despite sharing much in common, English and German can sometimes be deceptively analogous, and you might not always want to guess at meanings. Enter this (by no means exhaustive) list of German false cognates.

False cognates, or false friends, are words in two different languages that look and sound similar, but mean something entirely different. If you’re a student of the German language, you’re going to need to tread carefully.

Because German and English both belong to the West Germanic language family, they have a lot of linguistic history and exchange in common, and they both borrowed lots of words from Latin and other languages. But just because certain words have a common origin doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable.

Think of them as siblings separated at a young age: after growing up in vastly different households, they’re irrevocably molded and shaped by two totally different cultural environments. One sibling might hold onto certain traits or habits they had before the separation, and the other might evolve in a drastically different direction.

Such is the process of linguistic drift, and it’s brought us the following gems. Here are some of the most interesting German false cognates.

German False Cognates You Should Keep In Mind

1. Handy

Nope, this has nothing to do with how well you wield a drill, or how convenient your bottle opener is. It has nothing to do with that other thing either (please get your mind out of the gutter). In Germany, Handy is a common term for “mobile phone.” Some people say this came from Motorola’s Handie-Talkie, introduced during World War II, but the etymology of the word “Handy” is not clear. Linguists deem this theory unlikely, and some people say it’s originally German.

2. Oldtimer

Relax, your German friends are not talking about taking gramps for a spin. In Germany, Oldtimer is what you call a vintage car, not a senior citizen.

3. Smoking

You look smoking in that…Smoking? As a German word, Smoking means “tuxedo.” Keep in mind that you’re probably being asked about the dress code, not your woefully unhealthy lifestyle.

4. Gift

Here is perhaps the most cunning word tricks of them all. In German, Gift is not something most people want to be on the receiving end of. Gift means “poison,” which is kind of deep when you think about it. Many experiences in life are, in their own way, both a poison and a gift. But if you’re attending a birthday party and you don’t want to creep everyone out, the proper word is das Geschenk.

5. After

Tread carefully with this one. This is not only not a preposition in German, but it’s also one of those German false cognates that’s not totally safe for polite company. Put simply, it means “anus.”

6. Mist

That person standing next to you on the U-Bahn did not just curse at the humidity laying heavy in the air, even if it seems fairly logical that they would. When Germans exclaim “Mist,” they’re basically saying “Crap!” A fine thing to keep in mind in case your boss asks how hard it’s raining outside.

7. Gymnasium

Do you even lift, bro? It’s true that brains need workouts too, but somehow there’s just something really German about referring to a grammar school as a Gymnasium. Or is it just American to athleticize education? Who knows. Either way, if it’s a leg day for you, you’ll want to say that you’re going to das Fitnessstudio, or that you’re going to the “Sport.”

8. Dick

To be sure, “dick” is potentially offensive in either language. But in German, dick means “fat” or “thick.” I’ll just leave it at that.

9. Chef

There’s something vaguely charming about using “boss” and “chef” interchangeably. But in German, Chef is the word for the person overseeing the metaphorical kitchen, not the actual one. Chef refers to any sort of boss or supervisor.

10. Kind

If you want to tell someone how nice they are, the word you’re looking for is nett. But Kind is actually the German word for “child,” which, if you’ve ever been on a playground before, you’ll probably realize is not always synonymous with kindness.

11. Bodybag

Please calm down — Gap isn’t having a 50 percent markdown sale on murder supplies. Bodybag is just a German way of saying “messenger bag” or “rucksack.”

12. Fahrt

It’s hard to imagine how many Germans have been confronted with confusing situational laughter when discussing their summer vacation with English-speaking friends. But the German word Fahrt means “journey.” If you want to talk flatulence, Furz is your word.

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