False friends in English and Mandarin.

“False friends” are words in different languages that are similar but have different meanings. From wikipedia:

False friends (French: faux amis) are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets) that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning. An example is Portuguese raro “rare” vs. Spanish raro “strange” (similarly, Spanish exquisito “exquisite” vs. Portuguese esquisito “strange”). A commonly misunderstood false friend is between the words constipation in English, and constipação (in Portuguese) where the latter means a cold in Portuguese.

English and Chinese belong to seperate and very different language groups, and phonologically sound so different that its very rare for words to be confused. It does happen, however, and I couldn’t find a decent list anywhere on the internet. Here are the ones I can think of – and I’ll be updating this whenever I encounter another.

1. 扑克 “Pūkè” is often used in Chinese to refer to playing cards. In English “poker” is the name of just one particular card game.

2. 摩托车 “Mótuō chē” is Mandarin for ‘motorbike’ – but translated directly it comes out as ‘motorcar’, which in English is just an old-fashioned way to say ‘car’. 车 is generally translated as “car” but would be better rendered as “vehicle”, as bikes (自行车), buses (公共汽车), trains (火车), vans (面包车) and trucks (卡车) are not usually described as “cars.”

3. A 餐厅 “Cāntīng” is a general name for a restaurant in Chinese, often a higher class one. A “canteen” in English hand is “a place in a factory, office, etc. where food and meals are sold, often at a lower than usual price.”

4. Chinese 风雨同舟 “Fēngyǔtóngzhōu” – literally “Same boat (in) wind and rain” means that you should stick together in hard times. The English expression “be in the same boat” means you are stuck in the same situation, and doesn’t imply charity or a public-spiritedness.

5. 抹布 “Mābù” means “rag” or “dishcloth” in Mandarin, and sounds quite like “mop” – but English “mop” would better be translated as 拖把 “tuōbǎ”.

…that’s as many as I can think of for now. Any other suggestions, as ever, are welcome.

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7 Responses to False friends in English and Mandarin.

  1. Nicki says:

    Hamburger has beef (only) inside, but 汉堡包 has chicken or pork or beef or whatever inside.

  2. Myron Wagtail says:

    Excuse me but … I wouldn’t agree with the 3rd one, because when I want to say “ride the bicycle” I’ll say 骑车 and 上车 could mean “boarding the train/bus/car…” as the situation differs, which means the word 车 can refer to things other than cars. The usage may vary in different parts of China so I could be the minority anyway. The similarity of pronunciations of 抹布 and “mop” is a coincident that I’ve never noticed before. Maybe I can tell others about it if they have trouble memorising the word “mop”. It might help, but it may end up misleading them too, won’t it? I guess 汉堡包 means burgers? I wonder if “burgers” can have ingredients other than beef?

    • Myron Wagtail says:

      Hope you don’t mind me breaking into this part of your site beyond the pulp songs section.

    • I think perhaps the wording in point 2 is unclear, as you seem to be agreeing with me.

      Car=汽车
      Motorcar = 汽车
      Motorbike = 摩托车
      Vehicle=车

      But while 车 is very common in Chinese, ‘vehicle’ is very unusual in English, we’ll say car, bus, train, etc, and for verbs we’ll say get in, get out, drive, etc.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I like your blogs very much. Great work!

  4. webcowgirl says:

    I notice the English phrase “long time no see” is pretty much an exact match for “hao jou bujian,” a rarity indeed!

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