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  • Writer's pictureilzeduarte

Beware of False Friends between Portuguese and English

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

This is an updated version of my original post, in which I had used the term "false cognates." I had to reconsider my use of the term because, as I explain below, "cognate" means "born together," that is, born of the same root from an original language. After giving this more thought, I have come to the conclusion that it doesn't make sense to say that two words are false cognates--two words either have the same origin or they do not. I use the term "false friends" instead.

A few years ago, an NPR reporter was interviewing Brazilians about their perceptions of the state of the nation. We heard a few seconds of one interview, when the interviewee used the word decepção to describe how he was feeling about the government. The translation offered was "deception." I screamed at the radio. No, decepção does not mean deception! It means disappointment. Big difference. I wrote to NPR at that time to complain and ask that they exert greater care while translating from other languages. I received no response.

I recently saw a job post which I believe was written by a native speaker of Portuguese, possibly from Brazil. It asked applicants to indicate their "salary pretension," which makes no sense in English but makes sense if you speak Portuguese. "Pretensão" refers to what ones intends to do or to be. For example, the old-fashioned question a father may pose to his daughter's suitor in Portuguese would be quais são as suas pretensões com a minha filha? or "what are your intentions regarding my daughter?" In the job post, the writer probably meant "please state your salary requirement." It is not a good idea to assume a Latinate word will work between English and Portuguese. It is always best to check, and I recommend using a reputable dictionary. (If you follow me on Twitter, you know I am not a fan of machine translation.)

Beginning learners studying English in Brazil are always taught a number of word pairs between English and Portuguese that look similar but carry different meaning. I remember learning very early on that "actually" does not mean atualmente and "parent" does not mean parente. Learners are also taught such pairs are called "false cognates." In this post, I will not use this term, and here is why.

The word cognate means "born together." Word pairs like idea/ideia and vision/visão are cognates because they share the same root. Idea/ideia come from Greek via Latin, vision/visão come from Latin.

The term "false cognates" is often used in textbooks to refer to pairs of words in different languages that share the same origin but not the same meaning because it has changed over time in one or more of the languages. Decepção, from my example above, does come from the Latin dēcipiō meaning to deceive, but in Portuguese it did not retain its original meaning. However, I have decided not to call "deception" a false cognate of decepção because the two words are indeed cognates. They do share the same etymology. Some Brazilian researchers use the term cognatos enganosos, or "misleading cognates," to refer to such pairs, which I think is an apt way to describe them. In this post, I will be referring to such cognates as "false friends," also a commonly used term to refer to cognates that are not synonymous across languages.

Below I list a cognates between Portuguese and English that are not synonymous. There are many more such false friends, and you will be able to find them on the internet.

You will notice all the words listed originated from Latin. Some of these words have more than one meaning in English or in Portuguese or in both. For example, one of the meanings of "prejudice" is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one's rights." In that sense, "prejudice" is similar to prejuízo in the modern use of the word. However, "prejudice" is used most commonly to mean a preconceived idea, a bias against a person or group, whereas prejuízo in modern Portuguese means financial or material loss. I am considering the Portuguese words above false friends on the basis of the most common meaning of the words in modern usage, both in English and in Portuguese.

I need to highlight a different sort of of false friend: the words straight and estreito. This pair is not on the list above because the two words are not cognates, that is, they don't share the same origin. "Straight" is the Old English past participle of the verb stretch, whereas estreito comes from Latin and means narrow. Such pairs are potentially misleading if one is translating between Portuguese and English because of the similarity in their spelling and pronunciation. In fact, I have seen estreito mistranslated as "straight."

I want to thank the very sharp and always attentive Jane Camoleze for her help with the technical definition of false cognates and its distinction from non-cognate false friends.

Please comment on this or any of my posts in the contact section of my website.

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