False friends are words that look and sound similar across languages but have different meanings. In French and English, think of déception (disappointment) and deception, sensible (sensitive) and sensible, and the embarrassing préservatif (condom) and preservative. When both words stem from the same etymological root, these tricky pairs are known as false cognates.
Where do false cognates come from, and why do they crop up so often in English? Linguistic studies have shown that false cognates arise through the various actions of semantic change. Words from different languages are borrowed, and through this influential contact, their meanings shift over time. “As languages share words and meanings, the influence of certain words might slowly and surreptitiously add shifting nuances that may take over a word’s primary sense completely,” writes language scholar Carol Rifelj. A large part of the English vocabulary is borrowed from Latinate Norman French, and this influence can be seen in many French–English false cognates. Furthermore, English has undergone more major semantic shifts that any other European language. It is also the unofficial language of social media, where people from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds are constantly changing the way English is used and spoken.
While false friends can be landmines for translators, they are also a natural part of language evolution. “While we might have to do more work to overcome the treacherous pitfalls of the false friend, they also preserve a lexical legacy between and within languages that reveals much about the movement of meaning over time.” (Chi Luu, JSTOR Daily, 2017)