False friends – that is, apparent cognates in two languages that actually have quite different meanings – are often a source of difficulty for the foreign language learner. I’ve been shocked to realize on several occasions that my understanding of specific German terms – the definitions of which seemed secure in my internal lexicon – had in fact been distorted by their putative English equivalents. When the error concerns a word for which one has a certain fondness, the experience is all the most disconcerting. Just yesterday I learned that, while the term “latent” can certainly have the exact same meaning in both languages, it tends in German to designate a “hidden” but “constantly present” thing – in English, by contrast, the term in everyday usage refers to a hidden potential which has not yet manifested itself. This is a key distinction: is the thing being described active or not? I had muttered quite a bit of invective under my breath at the author of the text I was translating for his ostensible misuse of the term before consulting with a German native speaker, who disabused me of my misconception.
For me, in the end, this was a harmless error. A young girl who lives on the ground floor of our building wasn’t as lucky when she unwittingly stumbled into the snares of an embarrassing false cognate the other week. The girl in question, who on occassion attempts to showcase her English skills in my presence, announced during a brief exchange in the stairwell that she had “not douched today” – in German, “duschen” means “to shower,” but the word has quite a different meaning in English. This was a bit of personal trivia which I would have gladly been spared.