12 English Words With Unfortunate Meanings in Other Languages

A beginner’s guide to which words to watch out for where.

A woman whispering in a man's ear

Photo by Lisa Verhas/Flickr

There’s a name for the phenomenon of everyday English words that sound like offensive words in other languages: “false friends.”

When I first started teaching the English language in a small academy just outside Barcelona, I couldn’t figure out why the kids would start whispering and giggling every time I said something was cool or when we talked about what pets they had at home.

As it turns out, in Catalan, the word cool sounds almost identical to cul, or rear end, and pet is pronounced and spelled identically to the Catalan word for passed gas. Naturally, the kids could hardly contain themselves when I talked about cool pets.

Ironically enough, I’m guilty of the same reaction. In Catalan, the word fart means sick, as in sick of something—and even though I know I should be sympathetic toward someone who is clearly talking to me about their frustration, I almost can’t help but smile when I hear someone say it.

So before your next trip, while you’re going over key foreign language vocabulary like “hello,” “good-bye,” “please,” and “thank-you,” take a few more minutes to familiarize yourself with English words you should avoid abroad or any situation where there’s a mix of different languages. If nothing else, you’ll have a clue as to why that classroom full of small children (or the cute guy at the coffee shop) is giggling.

Read on for a beginner’s guide for English speakers on which words to watch out for—and where.

1. Siri in Japan

This one isn’t going to make you any instant enemies, but it’s a good one to know. Siri—you know, the digital assistant who comes in clutch when you need to know some random fact—translates to “尻 (shiri)” in Japanese . . . which means butt.

2. Pitch in Türkiye

Whether it’s in a formal meeting or in negotiations with a vendor in a Souk, forget talking about a proposal or an offer as a pitch—the word sounds too much like the Turkish word piç, which means bastard or mongrel.

3. Shabby in China

Steer very clear of this word if you find yourself conversing with someone in China. In Mandarin Chinese, the word sounds similar to 傻屄 (shǎ bī). This translates to a slur for female genitalia, one of those swear words you might toss out with a lot of anger behind it.

4. Kiss and kiss her in Sweden

These words sound a little too much like the Swedish word kissa—especially considering the fact that kissa has nothing to do with shows of affection. It means pee.

5. Lull in Holland

Lull is spelled and pronounced similarly to the word lul in Dutch. When you find out it means male genitals, you suddenly understand why you don’t want to talk about a “lull in business” in your presentation.

6. Puff in Germany

In German, puff, far from being a fluffy pastry or a cloud of smoke, is a slang term for a brothel.

7. Payday in Portugal

Even if you’re excited because it’s the end of the month and your bank account is about to be replenished (however temporarily), you might think twice about shouting praises to payday from the rooftops in Portugal. It sounds a little too much like peidei, which is Portuguese for “I passed gas.”

8. Cookie in Hungary

To avoid any strange encounters at the bakery, think twice about ordering a cookie in Hungarian bakeries (and not just because you’re better off trying local specialties like rétes and bejgli strudels). The word for America’s most famous exported baked good is pronounced the same as the Hungarian word koki, which means an undersized willy, if you get my drift.

9. Face in France

Fun fact: While the spelling is certainly different, the French word for rear end, fesse, is pronounced the same as face. If you think there’s any room for confusion when referencing your face, add gestures.

10. Preservatives in France

Beware of asking locals about preservatives in food. It’s not a curse word, but they’re likely to either a) give you a strange look or b) start howling from the strange visual you’ve just presented them with. In French, préservatif means condom.

11. Pick in Norway

When in Norway, you choose or select; never pick. Why? Because pick sounds too much like the Norwegian word for male genitals, pikk.

12. Salsa in Korea

Even if you’ve got serious cravings for a burrito during your time in Korea, try not to talk about salsa much in public or group settings. You may want to consider calling salsa “picante” or “sauce” for the duration of your trip. Salsa sounds just like seolsa, the Korean word for diarrhea.

Bonus Tip: Every version of English has its own slang. That’s why Americans in the United Kingdom should be careful about using the word fanny—in U.S. English it may mean backside, but in British English it’s a rude word for women’s private parts. The same goes for poof. No matter whether you heard it from Monty Python or in Bridget Jones’s Diary—it’s a derogatory term for gay people that you should stay far away from in Britain and also in New Zealand and Australia.

This article originally appeared online in 2017; it was most recently updated on January 17, 2024, to include current information. Erika Owens contributed to the writing of this article.

Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer with Midwestern roots. Her work can be found in Afar, BUST, Allure and Eater and beyond.
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