False friends between Russian and English

by InterPress ELT consultant Marina Vyskrebentseva

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines the word “ false friend” as a word in a foreign language that looks similar to a word in your own language, but has a different meaning. For instance, in Russian, familiya means last name, not family, and magazin means store, not magazine. Sometimes, the differences are more subtle. For example, student means university student, not high school or elementary school student.

The problem with many of these words is that Russian borrowed them from the same source as English borrowed them from, but in many cases Russian kept closer to the original meaning.

Thus, the word chef was borrowed from French into English with more specific meaning of “chief cook”, while it was, and still is, the original meaning in French. Thus, chef is a false friend between both English and French and English and Russian, but a” true friend “between French and Russian. The same is true about many other words.

A vivid example of a serious mistake which led to misunderstanding by one English journalist occurred in 1996, just before the Russian presidential elections.  On being told that Boris Yeltsin was unavailable because he was suffering from ангина ( angina), the unfortunate journalist reported that the presidential candidate had a heart condition, when all he had was tonsillitis. Words can be very slippery sometimes but they help to keep us alert.

False friends can cause difficulty for students learning a foreign language, particularly those that are related to their native language, because the students are likely to misidentify the words due to language interference. Since false friends are a common problem for language learners, teachers sometimes compile lists of false friends in order to help their students to avoid the usage mistakes.

False friends can cause difficulty for students learning a foreign language, particularly those that are related to their native language, because the students are likely to misidentify the words due to language interference. Since false friends are a common problem for language learners, teachers sometimes compile lists of false friends in order to help their students to avoid the usage mistakes.

The following list of false friends between Russian and English might be very useful for Russian learners of English

Russian word

English false friend

Recommended translatioz

аккуратный

accurate

tidy

ангина

angina

tonsillitis

фабрика

fabric

factory

стул

stool

chair

гениальный

genial

brilliant, great, of genius

смокинг

smoking

dinner jacket

оказия

occasion

opportunity

конкурс

concourse

competition

шеф

chef

boss

лунатик

lunatic

sleep-walker

симпатичный

sympathetic

likeable, nice, attractive

экстравагантный

extravagant

eccentric, bizarre, preposterous

интеллигентный

intelligent

cultured, educated

магазин

magazine

shop

гимназия

gymnasium

grammar school or gymnasia

кабинет

cabinet

study, office

декорация

decoration    

scenery, décor

рецепт

receipt     

recipe, prescription

балл

ball  

point

клей

clay

glue

инструменты

instruments

tools

лист

list

leaf

марка

mark

stamp

спектакль

spectacle

performance, play, show

вельвет

velvet

corduroy


There is no doubt that this list is incomplete, we invite you to contribute to make further listings. The bad news is that there are thousands of false friends lurking out there waiting to trip us up. But the good news is that they can all be learnt.

If you feel like writing to us on the topic of false friends, don’t hesitate to do it, please: marina@interpress.kz

For Further Reading: For a first attempt to include lists of false friends in a dictionary for learners of English, see: The Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Ed. Procter (CUP, 1995).

To look for lists of  false friends between English and other languages we recommend to look at the ff websites: www.wikipedia.org;    www.oup.com   www.macmillandictionary.com/MED-magazine