Watching Out for False Friends

Importance ★★


English and Swedish are both Germanic languages and share a common origin. Moreover, Old Norse (the language out of which Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic evolved) had a significant influence on the development of English through colonization. Consequently, it is not surprising that the two languages share some vocabulary. Many words in English and Swedish are similar. The following pairs of everyday words clearly indicate a common ancestry:

English Swedish
brother broder
can kan
cat katt

However, sometimes appearances can be deceiving, and we should not automatically assume that English words that resemble Swedish words have the same meaning. Because of cultural developments and chance, meaning may shift over the centuries following the migration of a word. Words which are very similar in sound and/or appearance in two separate languages but nevertheless have different meanings can be very confusing. We call such words false friends:

Swedish English Comment
Aktuell Current Actual means real in English.
Eventuell Possible Eventual means subsequent or final in English.
Konsekvent Consistent In English, consequent means that something happens as the result of something else.

It may also be the case that one language has only one word for distinct qualities, concepts or other phenomena, while another langauge names them separately. Here are a few examples in which a Swedish word translates to two different English words:

Swedish English
Effektiv Swedish uses one word to describe what English refers to as effective (achieving a goal) and efficient (achieving a goal using little money or effort).
Gymnasium In Swedish, gymnasium refers to a level of education but in English a gymnasium is a facility for sports. When referring to the corresponding educational level, American English uses high school; in the UK it is called upper secondary school.
Hus In English, house refers to a home, whereas building refers to a physical structure that may be domestic or not.
Isolering Swedish uses one word to refer to isolation (solitude) and insulation (material used to keep heat from escaping).
Mena This Swedish verb can correspond either to mean (as in What do you mean?) or to argue (as in She argues that global warming is a fiction).
Mening In Swedish, one word refers to (semantic or existential) meaning and (the linguistic category) sentence.
Säkerhet English makes a distinction between safety (protection from harm) and security (protection from attack, invasion, or loss).

Similarly, here are some examples of English words that translate in non-obvious ways to Swedish:

English Swedish
Ambitious The Swedish word ambitiös is less complex and more positive than the English ambitious, which may also imply ruthlessness or undue optimism.
Aspect Swedes overuse aspect in the belief that it is the equivalent of Swedish aspekt (which can mean something like consideration); in fact, aspect in English refers to a feature (of something specific), or can mean appearance or direction. It can also refer to a grammatical category.
Branch In Swedish, bransch refers to a business or an industry, whereas English branch refers to a part of an organization.
Merit Swedes often translate meriter to merits (which means advantages or qualities and corresponds to the Swedsih word förtjänster), whereas they actually mean qualifications.
Perverse In Swedish, pervers means perverted, which is why Swedes may be shocked to hear English speakers call their children perverse; this word is more multi-faceted in English.


“False friends” are words in two languages that appear to be the same but in fact have different meanings.

Further Discussion

Similar misunderstandings can also occur between users of different varieties of the same language, such as American and British English, since the same word may mean different things in different varities:

  American English British English
pants trousers underwear
fag gay man (very offensive) cigarette
mate sexual partner (in animals) friend
pavement road surface sidewalk