German So Funny

When I was studying French in school, my teacher at the time warned the class about faux amis. Literally translated this means “false friends”, but what she was getting at is that there are some words that are similar in two different languages which might lead you to assume that they have the same meaning, while in fact they do not. The classic French – English example that she provided was the word magasin, which you might assume means magazine, whereas in reality it means shop. While this is a perfect example of what she meant by a faux amis, it was not a particularly humerous one.

It was not until I started learning German, however, that I found a language filled with hilarious faux amis in relation to English. I remember being puzzled over ads for apartments which kept refering to their living rooms as “gross [and] hell”, which actually means large and brightly lit. I burst into laughter at a shop window with the word “Schmuck” plastered across it, only to discover that it actually means “jewelry”. Also, make sure you don’t offer someone a present and call it a “gift”, as that actually means you are offering them poison. My favorite German – English example though is probably the way that the parking ticket machines and highway signs politely wish you a “Gute Fahrt!” as you go about your way.

That is not to say that the hilarious faux amis only go in one direction. Describing the thick mist you had to cross in the countryside will get you laughed at, as you are actually describing the thick bullshit you were slogging through. I also personally spent a whole 5 minutes repeatedly using the word “mushy” to a student in describing the consistency he needed to blend his worms down to, only to be informed by my sniggering colleague that “mushy” in German means “pussy”, and not the one of the feline variety. Credit to my student though, he did not so much as crack a smile during my entire monologue.

However, despite the numerous examples that I have already come across despite my novice grasp of German, I think that there is one German – Romanian faux amis that just might trump them all.

My boyfriend joined me a few months after I had moved to Germany. He arrived one night, exhausted from his trip, but decided to join me and my colleagues on a traditional Kneipentour, which is a sort of bar hop often done as a leaving party for students. The typical way to do this bar hop is to have one shot and one beer in each location, so of course everyone clinks glasses and cheers before drinking. The fact that there is also a German superstition that you must look people directly in the eye when you cheer with them, lest you wish risking 7 years bad sex, added an extra wrinkle of hilarity to this story.

This being Germany we were not saying “Cheers” when clinking glasses, but rather “Prost”. After three rounds of people staring into each other’s eyes and saying “Prost” over and over again, my boyfriend finally asked what that means in German.

“It means Cheers”, I said.

“Oh”, he replied. “I thought it might. In Romanian, Prost means asshole”.

That has got to be my favorite faux amis of all time, even with all of the English ones put together. Everyone roared with laughter, made a point of emphasising the word Prost throughout the evening, and made a mental note to not say it in random bars should they ever visit Romania. It could lead to… an awkward misunderstanding.

So, do you know of any other amusing faux amis? Do you think you can beat “Prost”?


  1. rq says

    Does it have to be spoken? My best is in written form: “ass nazis” in Latvian means “sharp knife”.

  2. René says

    There is this joke in the Netherlands about a former Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers, who spoke a terrible “stonecoal” English. He is supposed to have introduced himself in Washington by saying “I fok horses”. (To breed = Fok(ken))

  3. says

    Of course “magazine” refers to a place for a collection of stuff, like for ammunition, so a shop called a ‘magasin” makes perfect sense.

  4. robert79 says

    In Dutch, the formal phrase for ‘Thank You’ is “Dank U” I had a French colleague who kept hearing this as “dans le cul” which means ‘in the ass’.

  5. CJO says

    The classic between Spanish and English is embarazada, which means “pregnant”. So it has a meta effect: You will be even more embarrassed if you say Soy embarazada to express your embarrassment.

  6. says

    only to be informed by my sniggering colleague that “mushy” in German means “pussy”, and not the one of the feline variety.

    It can also be the feline variety, though that use is falling out of fashion, I can’t think why.

    I can add the Greek German hilarity of “putz” which means “to clean” in German and “dick” in Greek so the German “Putzfrau” (cleaning woman) lets Greeks roar with laughter.

    Nice one is also pregnant – prägnant (concise), or sensible -sensible (sensitive).
    Something you cannot beat out of your students with a stick is the difference between get and become because German has “bekommen” for both. “I become a beer, please” or “the get lovers”.

    Spanish-German has regalo (gift) – Regal (shelf) and puta (whore) – Pute (Turkey)

    • secondtofirstworld says

      Sparherd became a regular stove, Esszeug is pronounced Esszeig, puccos (putzig) means something fancy.

      Also, as you may be aware, we don’t have gender pronouns, so playing the pronoun game can be torture or fun depending who you ask. And we like to bastardize loanwords as seen above (which is uncomfortable for being an ethnic German and all).

      Not to mention the confusing place names. There’s Porn Abbey, which has neither an abbey, nor porn. It was only called Porn, but the commies changed it. The massive flea market the French love so much is not in Ecser, not close to the subway station called Ecseri road, but a couple of miles away.

  7. says

    In German “kalt” means “cold”, but “caldo” in Italian (as you know) means “warm” or “hot”. In my regional Alpine dialect of Italian, the word is pronounced exactly the same as the german “kalt”. I remember that my grandparent used to say “it’s German hot” (“al fa un calt todesc”) when the weather was particularly cold.

    Here’a a grammatical faux ami between French and English: I’ve heard French people say (in English) “excuse the retard” when arriving late, to the merriment of all present native English speakers. That’s because in French they would say “excusez le retard” (literally “forgive the delay”).

    Lastly, I’ve been studying Polish for more than a year, and I can get over the fact that in Polish “no” means “yes”.

    So far my favourite is “Dank U” / “dans le cu”.

  8. timberwoof says

    I suspect that this story had more to with a similar translation someone once told me about. Supposedly in Russian, “Deutsch” means “Dumbass.” To confirm your story I poked Google’s online translation site and found remarkable inaccuracies in all translations of words like “asshole” into and out of Romanian. None of them include a word like Prost. (German prost -> Romanain noroc; Romanian prost -> English silly, German schlecht, French mauvais, which doesn’t quite measure up.) I suppose we will have to inform Google that their translation of Prost from Romanian is inaccurate. It stands to reason that in post-WWII Eastern Europe, not much love is spared Germans, and stories like these abound.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Given the fact that my boyfriend and his family are born, bred and native speaking Romanians, I believed him when he told me what “prost” meant. However, there are two explanations as to why Google translate is not being very helpful. 1. Google translate sucks at slang terms, and 2. he told me prost means “asshole”, but as in the insult, not as in the literal anus. For example, if you asked me how to call someone an asshole in Italian, I would say “stronzo”, although that does not mean anus, it means a log-shaped piece of shit. It is the closest equivalent to asshole in Italian because people do not refer to each other as anuses as an insult in Italian. I don’t know what prost literally means, only that it is used as an insult of similar offensiveness as “asshole” in English and “stronzo” in Italian.
      So, if you want to find “prost” in Romanian, you might rather Google Romanian swear words.

      • secondtofirstworld says

        There’s a much more logical third option: the lack of online input of languages not frequently spoken in the West. If somebody wants translation from Romanian, which has a written form as an amalgam between French and Russian (theirs is the only Neo Romance language, whose yes and no resembles more a Slavic language, than a Romance one), the best way is to translate it into French first (or other Romance one speaks) and then into English.

        Eleven testes is a biological description, but in my tongue it’ can describe wine. We also don’t use asshole, but asshead. Jar if translated can be a slur.

  9. Richard Simons says

    A South African friend told me that the local Anglican church got a new minister from England who worked hard at learning the local language, !Xhosa (the !X is a click). Eventually he was proficient enough to feel he could ask to give a sermon at the nearby !Xhosa church. He was welcomed in and decided to give his sermon about the holy spirit, how it sits on your shoulder and whispers to you to do the correct thing, how do you know when you are in its presence and so on. At the first mention of ‘holy spirit’ there was a muffled snicker. As he progressed, it became open laughter until finally everyone, including the !Xhosa pastor, was gasping with laughter, some literally rolling in the aisles. All he could do was to plough on. At the end, he asked his colleague what was wrong. The !Xhosa pastor eventually recovered enough breath to say ‘It was all fine, except that when you thought you were saying ‘holy spirit’, you were actually saying ‘bird shit’.

  10. lumipuna says

    I recall that many years ago there was a Finnish bottled cocktail drink named Musta Kissa (black cat). Apparently, that sounds almost like Swedish “måste kissa” (hafta pee).

    I also heard Clint Eastwood once made an autobiographic documentary, titled “Clint Eastwood on Clint Eastwood”. It was broadcast in Finnish with a literally unchanged title, translating “Clint Eastwood is Clint Eastwood”.

    I thought faux amis are mainly a thing between closely related languages, because many words are conserved from common origin, but with shifted meanings. Of course, homonymies may also result from loans or pure chance.

  11. HyperB says

    Prost = stupid/dumb/uneducated (person); shoddy/low quality (item).
    It may be a regional/generational thing but “prost” doesn’t carry the same meaning as “asshole” (nasty) to me. The italian “stronzo” is much closer – though I’d have guessed “coglione” would be the choice.

    BTW, for a laugh with your BF, the Botswanan currency and the Albanian word for chicken should do.×240.png

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    Traveling in Greece decades ago, I ran into problems even after having been warned:

    To express agreement, Greeks say (something sounding like) “Nay” and shake their heads.

    To disagree, they nod and say (something sounding like) “Okay”.

    • secondtofirstworld says

      It’s a regional thing also practiced in Albania and Bulgaria. My aunt visited the latter as a communist youth activist and got confused over refusing food.

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