Beware of false cousins

Beware of false cousins
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First Published: Sun, Aug 12 2007. 08 59 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Aug 12 2007. 08 59 PM IST
This is not the story of a long-lost cousin, who vanished when he was 11 years old and has now returned home. He narrates a tale of abduction, imprisonment in Africa, and a bold escape from his captors. You soon discover that he is an impostor, and hand him over to the law.
This is not about cousins, but about languages. False cousins or false friends (faux amis in French) are words that look very similar in two languages, but mean different things. This leads to misunderstanding. English and French have strong historical links. After the Norman Conquest (1066), there has been a continual movement of words across the channel in both directions. Some of the French loan words now have meanings that differ from their native meaning. “Voyage” is a well-known example. In French, it refers to any journey, and in English only to a journey by sea. In “bon voyage”, we are using the word in its French sense. French librairie, you would think, is the same as an English library, but it means a bookshop. The French word for library is bibliotheque, from which we also got discotheque, now clipped to disco.
Take the verb “ignore”. A French speaker may say, “I ignore what they say at the meeting.” This means he or she doesn’t know what they said; English “ignore” is a much stronger word and carries a hint of rejection.
Spanish, too, has its share of false cousins. A Spanish tourist who has a cold might ask the pharmacist for a drug to cure his constipacion. In Spain, if you ask for sopa, you will get soup, not soap. Jabon is Spanish for soap.
You may imagine that false cousins can provide you jokes for an after-dinner toast at a party. But many corporate houses have invested millions to advertise their products in foreign markets and realized too late that their message was distorted by the presence of false cousins in the copy.
Wikipedia has the story of Parker pen company’s Spanish advertisement in Mexico. The company wanted to launch a new pen and decided to use a slogan that said, “The pen won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” In place of “embarrass”, the ad used the closest Spanish word, embarazar. The result? The Spanish version meant, “The pen won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you.”
Another report tells us how an automobile giant wanted to introduce a car in Latin America and chose the name “Nova”. The company had to rename the car on finding that “nova” in Spanish means “doesn’t go”. “Mist” is a beautiful word, liked by poets. A hair products company decided to name its curling iron “mist stick”. But there was poor response from the German market: German “mist” means manure, dung.
Bernard Shaw said England and America are two countries separated by a common language. There are scores of false cousins in circulation between the two. When my plane was about to land at a US airport, there was an announcement: “We shall be momentarily landing in Newark airport.” I got scared: momentarily, to me, meant briefly. Will I have enough time to disembark and get to the connecting flight? I was a first-time flyer. Now I know that in the US it means “in a short time”, “soon”.
“Pants” is another example. Americans wear pants over their underclothing; in England they wear pants under their trousers. “Bomb” can mean a dismal failure in the US, and an overwhelming success in the UK.
In British English, the word Asian would refer to Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis; in the US, Koreans, Filipinos and Japanese are placed in that category. On a visit to China, we managed to make up a lunch using some of the “instant food” packets from India. We found a Chinese who knew English, and asked her where we could get some chips. She nodded her head and then led us to a computer store. Moral: Don’t forget that the Chinese are computer-savvy.
There are false cousins in Indian and British varieties of English. In a matrimonial ad, you read: “Looking for a fair, educated, homely girl from good family.” Did they really mean that? The dictionary tells us that “homely” means ugly, unattractive. They must have meant home-loving. Still, with matrimony: At a wedding in our family we drafted the invitation in standard format. We prefixed Chi. (short for chiranjeevi—“endowed with long life”) before the bridegroom’s name, and Sow. (short for sowbhagyavathi—“the fortunate one”) before the bride’s name. A friend of mine asked me to look up “sow” in the dictionary before printing the cards. Yes, there it was: “sow” was defined as the female of a pig.
I rushed to the printer and asked him not to abbreviate the two words.
We can end with a success story. For its launch in China, Coca-Cola tried to pick an appealing Chinese name. Chinese characters that sounded like “co-ca-co-la” were tried, but yielded queer meanings. So, the company reportedly researched tens of thousands of Chinese characters and then selected “ke kou ke le” (“ke” and “le” closely rhyming with “sir”). The meaning is “happiness in the mouth”. Today, “ke le” is the Chinese synonym for soft drink.
So, I repeat, beware of false cousins.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to
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First Published: Sun, Aug 12 2007. 08 59 PM IST