False cognates

A false cognate is a pair of words that have similar sounds and meanings, but have different etymologies. These can exist in the same language or in two different languages. They are essentially neat coincidences that occur between (sometimes widely different) languages. Here’s a wikipedia article on the phenomenon.

One between English and Japanese that many learn early on is name and 名前 (なまえ). (Compare the English origin and the Japanese origin.)

Share any false cognates that you’ve noticed! It can be between English and Japanese or another language and Japanese. Do false cognates help you remember words faster?


起こる - occur

What about words that sound/look similar but have very different meanings? How are those called?


I know it’s often (incorrectly) claimed that ありがとう comes from the Portuguese ‘obrigado’ (obligatory/obliged/thanks). I guess that counts.

(I believe the actual derivation of ありがとう is ありかたい - literally “difficult to exist”, interpreted as ‘rare’, as in “such kindness is…”)

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I have also heard those casually referred to as false cognates, but the specific term for that is “false friends.” Ex: embarrassed in English does not mean the same thing as embarazada in Spanish (pregnant), even though they sound similar.


近畿 (きんき) another name for the Kansai region of Japan

近畿大学 actually changed their English name to Kindai University to avoid the false cognate.


Today I learned that that’s called a false friend :smirk:

Aren’t false friends words that you might be tempted to guess as correct but then get burned because of their real meaning? I don’t think 起こる or 近畿 qualify on that regard. If you guess those as the meaning, you will be misunderstood, but not really “burned” per se.

Maybe I’m misremembering the meaning.

起こる is a false cognate with “occur” because they sound similar and also mean similar things.

近畿 and “kinky” are false friends because they sound similar but have different meanings.


I think he was refering to your post. When a coworker told me she was a きんきギャル I went straight for the English meaning.


What kind of workplace was this? ギャル has a pretty specific style attached to it that you wouldn’t usually associate with professional attire. Sure it wasn’t ガール?

Even then it doesn’t make much sense to say unless you’re trying to make a double entendre with the English.

Off the top of my head, some false cognates I can remember coming across are since moving to Japan are:

カンニング which sounds like “cunning” but meanings cheating, specifically on an exam.
サイダー which sounds like “cider” but doesn’t mean it’s an alcoholic drink derived from apples.
チャレンジ which sounds like “challenge”, but really has the connotation of attempting something one thinks is difficult
リベンジ which sounds like “revenge” but doesn’t have the connotation of retribution against someone else. It means more like re-attempt.

EDIT: Corrected a typo.

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Man, I hate this one. If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard “I want to charenji”, I’d have enough pennies to put in the end of a sock and beat the next person I hear say it half to death with.

Ah, yes. I hear this one often at my job where my coworkers tell me about how so-and-so is going to take X level of the 英検 (えいけん) exam.

I remembered some more:

マンション - this refers to multi-storied apartment buildings (or condo)
プリント - this refers to classroom handout (and possibly other printed materials meant as a flyer)
シール - this refers to any kind of stickers
レベルアップ - this refers to an upgrade or improvement
スタイル - this has an additional meaning of referring to someone’s body or figure.

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A non-Japanese marketing company, we are less formal than your typical Japanese company. And yes It was indeed ガール.

I asked here if she was from Tokyo and that was here answer, I don’t know if she was aiming for a double entendre but she found it funny when I explained to her what it meant in English.

I actually made this thread because okoru made me think of false cognates! I like that one.

And as others have said, words with similar sounds but different meanings are false friends. Unlike false cognates, they do sometimes have similar etymologies (or like many examples can be loanwords) but end up with different meanings/connotations in different languages.

Have some more false cognates!
繋ぐ (つなぐ) sounds kind of like snug, and it means to tie/fasten/bind things together. A little bit of a stretch but I like it.
ばば (old woman) and баба (grandmother in Russian) both have similar meanings and are pronounced the same.

I just remembered one: 広い (ひろい/wide) sounds exactly like herói (hero in Portuguese) ^^

And from that region, KinkiKids:


Do you mean チャレンジ?

Yes. Thank you for catching that! I wrote it so fast that it didn’t even notice.

I like that 地域 sounds like “cheeky.”