20 Hilarious Foreign Words That Don't Mean What We Thought
When you peer at something written in a language you don't know, the whole thing looks like gibberish. But then, suddenly, a stroke of luck: You recognize a word. You know what you're reading after all!
Except, no, you don't. It's a different language, duh, so the words mean different things. You've stumbled on what's known as a false cognate, when you assume the word must be related to the similar-looking English one but you're wrong, wrong, wrong. There are a whole lot of false cognates that might trip you up. Let's start with an easy one, and then work our way up to the weirder stuff:
“Pain” In French Equals “Bread”
Imagine heading into a sophisticated French joint, glancing at the menu, and learning that they deal in pain. Looks like you're in a cunningly disguised S&M club, but the pronunciation puts a little more stank on it, and the pain in question is actually a nice, hearty piece of bread.
“Slut” In Swedish Means “End”
It’s a heck of a loaded word, that slut there. It conjures up a person who is unclean and not very discriminatory in their choice of romantic partners. But if you were in the great white north of Sweden, you could very well be reaching the slut of a road heading into Stockholm. Or, if you’re in Stockholm watching a film, don’t be surprised when the film concludes with a nice big “slut” on the screen.
“Gift” In German Means “Poison”
German words are fun. There’s a certain kind of machine gun cadence to the language that doesn’t even try to mimic the romance and elegance of some other European deliveries. So is it any surprise that if you tell a Berliner you’re offering them a gift, what they hear is that you’ve got a whole bunch of poison for them?
“Blanquette” In French Is A Veal Stew
You’re cozied up in a little cottage in Normandy. The winter night is still and silent outside. Snow falls lazily against the frosted, brittle windows. You see that this lovely space you’re inhabiting offers “blanquettes” right up until 10pm. You find it odd that there’s a cutoff for fabric to cover you with warmth, but you order one just in time. You receive a bowl of thick brown liquid with chunks of baby cow floating within. You didn’t do your homework before going to France.
“Constipado” In Spanish Means “Sinus Congestion”
Congestion of any kind is bad news; things are supposed to leave your body via your internal highways, and when traffic is jammed up, days are ruined. So imagine being told by a Hispanic doctor that you’re “constipado” when you’re pointing at your nose. They're likely a really good doctor. You just didn’t know that the word means your sinuses are congested, not that your pooping isn’t going very well lately.
“Mist” Means “Crap” In German
Our old friends in Germany give us another false cognate here. We see the word mist and picture a lovely, glistening wall of water droplets. But no, they mean it as our version of “ah, crap!," or maybe literally a pile of dung. Either way, at least it’s not a mist of crap.
“Hiss” In Swedish Means “Elevator”
If you hiss, that probably means you're a feline or Dracula-type creature. To summon a hiss in Sweden means to call an elevator. Maybe it has something to do with the hissing sound of hydraulics in the elevator mechanisms, or maybe it’s just something inherently Swedish and it’s delightful for that very reason?
“Rathaus” In German Means “Town Hall”
If you see the word “rathaus” whilst touring a German city, you would most likely steer clear, unless you have strong affections for rodents. But you would be surprised to find out it’s basically their version of a city hall. Maybe the rat connotations aren’t accidental when there’s politicians involved.
“Slutspurt” In Danish Means “Final Sprint”
Here's another Scandinavian slut, and this one sounds even dirtier. “Slutspurt” just being on your screen right now probably gives you the “I wish I was in Incognito Mode” sweats, but relax. In the Danish language, it’s the final sprint at the end of a race. Oddly enough, it's also a term for a store with a very limited time sale on their products.
“Kissa” In Swedish Means “Pee”
If you’re planning on visiting Sweden, this is one faux pas you don’t want to make. If someone offers you a “kissa," run as fast as you can to one of the neighboring Nordic countries. They’re talking about pee, not a little peck on the cheek. Funny enough, the word for “kiss” in Swedish is “puss." Talk about being all kinds of confused in the romance department.
“Embarazada” Means “Pregnant” In Spanish
“Oh honey, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about! You’re going to bring a beautiful life into this world!” That’s the kind of language barrier and misunderstanding that you could have near the U.S.-Mexico border. It looks on paper that you’re embarrassed about something, but the word for that in Spanish is “avergonzado." Talk about an avergonzado situation, especially if you didn’t know you were pregnant.
“Mietwagen” In German Is A Rental Car
There are a lot of food terms that describe cars. The most popular is lemon, a car that functions less than satisfactorily, and its more satisfactory counterpart, “cherry.” Ok, that’s really it, but in Germany a term for a rental car sounds super food-related. Yes, make a stop at Hertz Rent-a-Car in Munich and pick up a “mietwagen” for the week. No, it’s not a Honda that also grinds and encases sausages while you drive, it’s just what they call rental cars there.
The Spanish Word For “Condom” Is “Preservativo”
This one actually makes a lot of sense. When you see the Spanish word “preservativo," it looks like an additive to keep food from spoiling. But then you come to find out that it’s the term they have for condoms, and it’s got a really loaded meaning. A condom could very well preserve your way of life, if you’re not ready for the responsibilities of parenthood.
“Klozet” In Polish Means “Toilet”
Here’s another word that adds on a nice creamy texture of meaning when you think about it. At first, you may be all like “uh, NO, the toilet isn’t located in the closet. The closet is where I keep my sweatpants until November." But think again: A lot of old-timers call it a “water closet," and technically it’s like a closet in your hallway. Except you poop in it.
“Chair” In French Means “Flesh”
Now this one here does not add a creamy texture of hidden meaning. This one could get you in all sorts of trouble. Please do NOT approach a table of people at a bar in Paris and ask for a “chair." That will get you wide eyes and agape mouths. Because in this case, you asked for some flesh. A chair would be a “chaise," and you would likely get sent to prison and get the “chaise” if you inquired about flesh one too many times.
“Monster” In Dutch Means “Sample”
If you were to visit the doctor’s office in the Netherlands, you may be asked to provide a “monster." Try as you might to close your eyes and conjure a true-to-life blood demon then and there in the exam room, you’d find it impossible. At least in this scenario. But worry not! They just want a sample of something, like urine, or blood, or three of your toenails.
“Morbido” Means “Soft” In Italian
This is one of those things that seem so intrinsically opposite (if you speak English), that you can’t imagine why they mean what they mean. In Italian, if you feel something that has a soft feel to it, it would be called “morbido." If something is morbid in English, it’s something distinctly non-soft, and usually quite dark and disturbing. But Italian sounds so good otherwise, maybe they had it right all along.
“Rapista” In Spanish Simply Means “Barber”
Just the sight of the word “rapista” chills the spine. But you can relax. In the Spanish-speaking world, it’s just a person that would sit you down and cut your hair. Maybe they noticed how confusion could lead to something bad, so there’s another word, barbero, that actually looks like “barber," and not a felony accusation.
“Genitori” Means “Parents” In Italian
Yes, you technically did come from your parents' genitals, let’s just get that out of the way. In Italian, “genitori” is the term for your folks, your mom and dad. You may notice that the word looks a heck of a lot like “genitals," and you’re not wrong. But again, everything sounds cooler in Italian, and the discomfort you get from most of these words is mostly due to English being so mutt-like and weird.
“Douche” In French Means “Shower”
To call someone a “douche” is a really direct way of saying you don’t care for them as a person. More literally, it's a certain feminine product. In France, it means to take a shower. Ever heard that stereotype that French people don't shower much? Definitely, it started when some English-speaker pointed to a shower in France and thought everyone who responded to him called him a douche.