False cognate

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Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine, a sharif but not a sheriff.

False cognates are pairs of words that seem to be cognates because of similar sounds and meaning, but have different etymologies; they can be within the same language or from different languages, even within the same family.[1] For example, the English word dog and the Mbabaram word dog have exactly the same meaning and very similar pronunciations, but by complete coincidence. Likewise, English much and Spanish mucho which came by their similar meanings via completely different Proto-Indo-European roots. This is different from false friends, which are similar-sounding words with different meanings, but which may in fact be etymologically related.

Even though false cognates lack a common root, there may still be an indirect connection between them (for example by phono-semantic matching or folk etymology).


The term "false cognate" is sometimes misused to refer to false friends, but the two phenomena are distinct.[1][2] False friends occur when two words in different languages or dialects look similar, but have different meanings. While some false friends are also false cognates, many are genuine cognates (see False friends § Causes).[2] For example, English pretend and French prétendre are false friends, but not false cognates, as they have the same origin.[3]


Note: Some etymologies may be simplified to avoid too long descriptions.

Between English words[edit]

Term 1 Etymology 1 Term 2 Etymology 2
day OE dæġ
<< PG *dagaz
<< PIE *dʰogʷʰ-o-s
<< *dʰegʷʰ- ("to burn")
diary Latin diārium << dies ("day")
<< Proto-Italic *djēm
<< PIE *dyḗws ("heaven")[4][5]
island OE īġland
<< PG *awjōlandą
or ea + land
isle Latin insula
male OE malle
<< Latin masculus << mās
female Old French femelle
<< Latin femella << fēmina
<< Proto-Italic *fēmanā
<< PIE *dʰeh₁-m̥h₁n-éh₂ ("the one nursing")
man OE mann
<< PG *mann-
<< PIE *mon-
human Latin hūmānus << homo
<< Proto-Italic *hemō
<< PIE *ǵʰm̥mṓ ("earthling")

Between English and other languages[edit]

English term English etymology Foreign term Foreign etymology
ache OE acan ("to ache")
<< PG *akaną ("to be bad")
Ancient Greek ἄχος ákhos (pain, distress)[6] PIE *h₂egʰ-
ask OE āscian
<< PG *aiskōną
Jaqaru aska[7]
bad PG *bad- Persian بد, bad[7][5] PIE *wed(h)-
to be PG *beuną
<< PIE *bʰúHt
Gbaya be[7]
to cut Old Norse *kutta
<< PG *kutjaną
Vietnamese cắt ("to cut") Proto-Vietic *kac
<< Proto-Mon-Khmer *kac ~ *kat
dog OE dogga Mbabaram dog ("dog")[5] Proto-Pama-Nyungan *gudaga
day OE dæġ
<< PG *dagaz
<< PIE * *dʰegʷʰ- ("to burn")
Latin dies ("day") and descendants[4][5] Proto-Italic *djēm
<< PIE *dyḗws ("heaven")
dung OE dung
<< PG *dungō
<< PIE *dʰengʰ- ("to cover")
Korean ttong ("excrement")[8] Middle Korean ᄯᅩᆼ stwong
emoticon emotion + icon Japanese 絵文字 emoji[9] e ("picture") + 文字 moji ("character")
hollow OE holh
<< PG *holhwo-
Lake Miwok hóllu[7]
much OE myċel
<< PG *mikilaz
<< PIE *meǵa- ("big, stout, great")
Spanish mucho ("much")[5] Latin multus
<< PIE *ml̥tos ("crumbled")
name OE nama, noma
<< PG *namô
<< PIE *h₁nómn̥
Japanese 名前 namae ("name") na ("name") + 前 mae (suffix emphasizing a quality)
saint Latin sanctus
<< PIE *seh₂k- ("to sanctify")
Sanskrit sant and descendants[10] sat ("truth, reality, essence")
sheriff OE scīrġerēfa, or shire + reeve Arabic شريف sharif ("noble")[11] ش ر ف‎ š-r-f
tiny Middle English tine
<< OE tind
<< PG *tindaz
Yana tʼinii[7]

Between other languages[edit]

Term 1 Etymology 1 Term 2 Etymology 2
French feu ("fire") Latin focus
<< PIE *bʰeh₂- ("to shine")?
German Feuer ("fire") PG *fōr ~ *fun-[12][13][5]
<< PIE *péh₂wr̥
German haben ("to have") PG *habjaną
<<PIE *keh₂p- ("to grasp")
Latin habere (" to have") and descendants[14] PIE *gʰeh₁bʰ- ("to grab, to take")
Inuktitut ᖃᔭᖅ (kayak) Proto-Eskimo *qyaq Turkish kayık[15] Ottoman Turkish قایق‎ (kayık)
<< Proto-Turkic
Modern Greek μάτι (máti) Ancient Greek ὀμμάτιον ommátion,
diminutive of ὄμμα ómma ("eye")[7][5]
Malay mata ("eye") and descendants Proto-Malayic *mata
<< Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *mata
<< Proto-Austronesian *maCa
Japanese ありがとう arigatō ("thank you") ありがたく arigataku
<< Old Japanese ありがたし arigatashi[citation needed]
Portuguese obrigado ("thank you") Literally "obliged"
<< Latin obligātus

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Moss (1992), p. ?.
  2. ^ a b Chamizo-Domínguez (2008), p. 166.
  3. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Pretend". The Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved 2015-09-14.
  4. ^ a b Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Campbell, Lyle; Mixco, Mauricio J. (2007). A Glossary of Historical Linguistics. Edinburgh University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-7486-2378-5.
  6. ^ Harper, Douglas. "ache". Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. Retrieved 29 August 2014.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 350
  8. ^ Martin, Samuel E. (1966). "Lexical Evidence Relating Korean to Japanese". Language. 42 (2): 187. doi:10.2307/411687. JSTOR 411687.
  9. ^ Taggart, Caroline (5 November 2015). New Words for Old: Recycling Our Language for the Modern World. Michael O'Mara Books. ISBN 9781782434733 – via Google Books.
  10. ^ Schomer, Karine; McLeod, W. H. (1987). The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. p. 3. ISBN 978-81-208-0277-3. OCLC 879218858. Retrieved 7 November 2018. Thus conceptually as well as etymologically, it differs considerably from the false cognate 'saint' which is often used to translate it. Like 'saint', 'sant' has also taken on the more general eithical meaning of the 'good person' whose life is a spiritual and moral exemplar, and is therefore attached to a wide variety of gurus, 'holy men', and other religious teachers.
  11. ^ "sheriff - Search Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  12. ^ see Kroonen, Guus (2013), Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic, Leiden: Brill
  13. ^ Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 355
  14. ^ "have - Search Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  15. ^ de la Fuente, José Andrés Alonso (2010). "Urban legends: Turkish kayık 'boat' | "Eskimo" Qayaq 'Kayak'" (PDF). Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis. Retrieved 2015-03-06.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rubén Morán (2011), 'Cognate Linguistics', Kindle Edition, Amazon.
  • Geoff Parkes and Alan Cornell (1992), 'NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates', National Textbook Company, NTC Publishing Group.
  • Chamizo-Domínguez, Pedro J. (2008), Semantics and Pragmatics of False Friends, New York/Oxon: Routledge
  • Jakobson, Roman (1962), "Why 'mama' and 'papa'?", Selected Writings, I: Phonological Studies, The Hague: Mouton, pp. 538–545
  • Moss, Gillian (1992), "Cognate recognition: Its importance in the teaching of ESP reading courses to Spanish speakers", English for Specific Purposes, 11 (2): 141–158, doi:10.1016/s0889-4906(05)80005-5

External links[edit]