Unlike many other languages where most objects or concepts are referred to by a new word, the German language tends to combine existing words. However, while you may find these German compound words unfamiliar as an English speaker, you can usually infer the meanings from the individual words that make up the compound words. Provided you are familiar with the basics.
Even though the individual words in the German compound words can often help you figure out the meaning, there are still many German words that can be misleading. These words are called false friends because they’re easily mistaken for English-German cognates.
German False Friends
Even though they resemble common English words, these false friends mean something entirely different from the English word they appear to look like. Naturally, these words often lead to some confusion and misunderstandings.
Let’s take a look at eight common German-English false friends.
1. Die Rente
Looks like „rent“; actually means „pension“
Both the English and German terms refer to money. However, the German word doesn’t describe the payment. When Germans speak of “Rente”, they are referring to the amount of money senior citizens start to receive when they retire: pension. It is the basis of the noun “der Rentner”, meaning „a pensioner“. The German word for the payment you make to the landlord is “die Miete”.
2. Der Chef
Looks like „chef“; actually means „manager“
It seems only natural to pass compliments to the Chef after having a good Sauerbraten. But rather than your feedback going to the person who prepared the meal, your message of approval would go to the manager. The German word for a professional cook is “der Koch” or “die Köchin”, which is derived from the verb “kochen” (meaning „to cook“).
3. Das Gymnasium
Looks like „gym“; actually means „grammar school“
You might be surprised to learn that youths in Germany spend the vast majority of their time in the “Gymnasium”. It has nothing to do with bulking up, however. They go there to get smarter. Roughly translated, “Gymnasium” refers to grammar school in German. It is one of the school options in the tri-part education system in Germany, where academically proficient students are separated from their practically inclined counterparts.
The German word for the place where you go to work out is “das Fitnessstudio”. However, a majority of German speakers would simply say „Ich gehe zum Sport“ (meaning „I am going to the sport“) to let you know they’re heading to the gym.
4. Das Lokal
Looks like „local“; actually means „restaurant“ or „pub“
Don’t act puzzled the next time a person asks you for directions to the nearest “Lokal” in your city. They’re not asking you to let them know about every person that lives there; they want you to point them to a restaurant or pub. The German terms describing a local person are “der Einheimische” for a male and “die Einheimische” for a female.
5. Die Fabrik
Looks like „fabric“; actually means „factory“
“Fabrik” in German refers to the place where goods are manufactured. The German word for fabric is “der Stoff”, or “das Stoffstück” when referring to a piece of cloth.
6. Die Hochschule
Looks like „high school“; actually means „university“ or „college“
Education-related false friends don’t end with Gymnasium. The tri-part education system in Germany sends off most students to “Hochschule”, whereas their American counterparts go through high school before heading off to college. “Hochschule” is a synonym for “die Universität” or university/college.
As with the term “Gymnasium”, there’s no direct translation for „secondary school“ or „high school“ in German. German speakers typically speak of the particular school they are in, such as “Gymnasium” (grammar school) or “Gesamtschule” (comprehensive school). Schools in the age range of high school can also be called “die Sekundarschule” or “die Mittelschule”.
Looks like „to spend“; actually means „to donate“
Here we have another false friend for which the English and German terms have a related but different meaning. “Spenden” is the German word for „donate“ and it is related to the noun “die Spende” which means „donation“. The German word for „to spend“ is “ausgeben”.
8. Der See
Looks like „sea“; actually means „lake“
For both German and English speakers, these words refer to a body of water. But that’s where the similarity ends. The German term “der See” describes a lake and not the seaside as an English speaker may mistakenly assume.
This is, however, among the trickier false friends because the term “der See” has a feminine form (die See) which means „ocean“. It is for this reason that you should make sure you fully understand the cases and genders when learning German. The German word for „sea“ is “das Meer”.
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