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15 Words That Have Very Different Meanings Across Languages

Watch your language abroad: If you use any of these 15 words, people might think you’re a bit rude, or worse!

Some of these words are known as false friends, and are either spelled or pronounced the same as words in other languages, but they can have very different meanings: they might be harmless in one language but quite insulting in another.

1. Ne ga: Korean/English

“Ne ga” (pronounced nee-gaa) means “you” in Korean. Avoid singing Korean pop in public in English-speaking countries!

Chinese also has a similar sounding phrase meaning “this is.”

2. Gaae: Thai/English

If you’re new to the Thai language you might want to check up on your pronunciations before embarrassing yourself. The word for “old” in Thai is “gaae” but many students of the language end up pronouncing it as “gay” which means the same in Thai as it does in English.

So, if you ask someone how old they are and you aren't clear with your pronunciation, you might not get you the answer you expected!

3. Moron: Welsh/English

“Moron” is Welsh for “carrots.” And also “moron,” unfortunately.
Ydych chi'n hoffi moron? (Do you like morons/carrots?)

2024208333_50b7a952cb_z Nicholas Noyes / Flickr

4. Won: Polish/Russian

In Poland you’d be welcomed for describing someone’s house as “won” (nice smelling), but in Russia you might not be so well received: in Russian it means “stink.”

5. Oficina: Spanish/Portuguese

A Spanish mechanic might be unduly flattered when asked about his “oficina” by a Portuguese speaker, since “oficina” means “workshop” in Portuguese, but “office” in Spain.

6. Schlimm: Dutch/German

Being “schlimm” (smart/successful) is something to be proud of in the Netherlands, but not so much in Germany where it’s used to describe someone who is dim-witted and unsuccessful.

7. Fag: US/UK English

If you’re British, don’t use the word “fag” to ask for a cigarette in other English speaking countries – it's not the most common usage, and is often considered derogatory.

4761768988_09958afa9b_oBrice Ambrosiak / Flickr

8. Slut: Swedish/English

In Swedish “slut” means “end/finished,” along with its many variations. Try not to use this word when telling your girlfriend it’s over between you.

9. Air: English/Malay

In Singapore, where Malay is one of the four official languages, the air is cause for much frustration and debate because of the high levels of pollution. Speaking of air, the Malay word “air” means “water” in English, where the word for air is “udara.”

10. Dick: English/German

“Dick” is rude to call someone in both the German and English languages, in case you were even thinking of using it. "Dick" means “thick” or “fat” in German.

11. Gift: German/Danish/Swedish/Norwegian/English

“Gift” means “poison” in German, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Aptly, it also means “to get married” in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian.

12. P̄hạk: Thai/English

If you’re in the habit of speaking a mix of Thai and English, you should be careful when you have guests who only speak English over for a meal.

Definitely do not ask them, “Would you like some p̄hạk soup?” because they might just say yes and expect something completely different. In Thai, p̄hạk is pronounced /fʌk/, like the vulgar English word, and means “vegetable.”


Cristen Andrews / Flickr

13. Tapas: Brazilian/Spanish

You could easily land yourself a rosy cheek when asking your waiter for some “tapa(s)” in Brazil, which means “slap,” as opposed to the dish served in mainland Spain. “Bocas” would be the more appropriate word to use in Brazil if you’d like a snack (which actually means "mouths" in Spanish!) – keeping up?

14. Habla: Filipino/Spanish

“Habla” in Spanish means “to say”; in Filipino it means 'a lawsuit/to sue'.
Spanish tourist: “Hablas Espanol?”
Filipino lawyer: “Isn’t that a bit racist?”
An unlikely scenario.

15. Fart: Danish/English

“Fart” is Danish for “speed,” so keep that in mind when you see a road sign saying “Fart Kontrol” (Speed Control).

If you see the words “I Fart” displayed on an elevator in Denmark, don’t panic, it just means “In Use.”

Keep the above words and phrases in mind when you need a quick language-related joke, or when trying to avoid embarrassing yourself in a foreign land. And if you're especially worried about making a slip-up, contact us to find the right language course for you.