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< Usage 7—False Friends

Usage 7—False Friends

There are many words which are used in both Russian and English but which do not suggest the same thing to the listener. When people start using a foreign word they are seldom aware of all the things it can mean in its original language. Such borrowed words start as somebody’s jargon which means that they can end up having a very specific meaning which a speaker of the original language would not even recognize. For example, an English speaker would be surprised to know that to a Russian the English word “meeting” refers to an open-air political rally and nothing else.

People in business attire sit around a table while a man standing next to a chart speaksMeeting Parents and children hold up signs calling for peaceМитинг

The other reasons is that the meaning of words changes over time. The meaning of the word can shift in its new language. Or it can shift to the point where speakers of the original language know the borrowed meaning only from old books. A case in point is “фальшивый” which means “used to deceive” rather than “untrue” as the modern English speaker would expect.

For each word in the table below we show the meanings which a modern speaker of each language is likely to recognize.

Common English Meanings Today Common Russian Meanings Today
act—an action; a major division of a theatrical performance

акт—an official report of an incident such as an auto accident; an official record of a legally significant action; a major division of a theatrical performance (also known as “действие”)

половой акт—the sex act

actual—real, not imaginary or hypothetical актуальный—1) timely as in “актуальная информация”; 2) fully equipped and able to work; 3) valid, not expired (perhaps of a document)
accurate—precise, free of factual error

аккуратный—neat and tidy

аккуратно—carefully so as not to damage anything; carefully so as not to give offense by one’s words

adequate—sufficient in quality and quantity to serve the intended purpose адекватный—behaving in a way appropriate to the situation, dignified, giving evidence of a sound mind
affair—an ongoing matter; a sexual relationship, often illicit афера—a scheme to enrich oneself by dishonest means
artist—one who produces paintings, sculptures, or other representations артист—one who performs in a theater or a circus
association—1) an organization; 2) a connection between two ideas; 3) spending time together as friends ассоциация—1) an organization; 2) a connection between two ideas
authority—1) the right to make decisions for others, to issue orders; 2) a recognized expert qualified to speak on a particular subject

авторите́т—one whose decisions and pronouncements are respected either generally or by a named person

криминальный авторитет—a crime boss

automat—a fast food restaurant where food and drinks are served by vending machines

автомат—a vending machine; an automatic rifle; an automatic automobile transmission (gearbox)

игральный автомат—a slot machine

barricade—any artificial impediment to traffic such as a gate or furniture piled against a door баррикада—a obstacle made of objects piled in the street erected by protesters during civil unrest
basin—a wide open vessel for holding liquid, generally water for washing бассейн—a swimming pool
combine—short for “combine harvester” комбайн—any multi-function machine including a combine harvester, a mining machine, a food processor, a combined printer/copier/scanner
cosmonaut—a Russian or Soviet astronaut космонавт—an astronaut
communication—the act of conveying information коммуникация—1) a path over which information or supplies travel, a military supply chain; 2) the act of exchanging information; 3) a system of pipes or cables for supplying electricity, telephone service, water, heat, and the like.
competent—having the skills necessary to complete a given task компетентный—qualified to render an opinion (in the English sense of “courts of competent jurisdiction”)
constructor—one who builds конструктор—an erector set or similar toy having pieces which one can assemble to make arbitrary objects
control (as a verb)—to direct a process or activity контроли́ровать—to monitor the activity of others being ready to step in if the situation becomes dangerous or rules are violated
criminal—a person who commits crimes криминалcriminality, criminal activity
demonstrate—to show how to do something демонстрировать—to show (often of a photograph or a motion picture)
discipline—action taken, frequently by a parent, to teach good conduct and correct bad conduct дисциплина—a set of rules to which all members of a group must conform (the sense meant in the English expression “military discipline”)
document—a text which provides information, evidence, or records official or organizational matters документ—an important official paper such as a passport or a driver’s license (but occasionally used in the broader senses at left)
douche—irrigation of the female genitals душ—a shower bath
effectively—1) in a manner likely to produce the desired effect; 2) having nearly the same effect: “effectively the same”, “effectively prohibited” эффективно—in manner likely to produce the desired effect
familiarity—acquaintance with some subject фамильярность—the act of being overly familiar in one’s manner
false—not in accordance with fact фальшивый—fake or counterfeit (as in the English expression “a false beard”); insincere and affected
fanatic—one who is carried away beyond reason by his beliefs фанат—an enthusiastic supporter (fan)
fan—a device for moving air for purposes of cooling or ventilation фен—a blow dryer for hair
focus—direction of attention, resources or activity toward a single point

фокус—a conjuring trick; a elaborate deception; a deliberately specious argument

фокусник—a stage magician

inadequate—not sufficient in quantity or quality неадекватный—undisciplined or extremely eccentric in behavior, possibly mentally unsound
intelligent—having natural ability to reason clearly and solve hard problems интеллигентный—educated and cultured
kettle—a vessel for boiling water or cooking food over a fire; a vessel for boiling water for tea котёл—a boiler (device for producing steam or hot water for domestic heating or industrial use)
master—one who commands servants or slaves мастер—a skilled workman
meeting—a coming together either by chance or by prior arrangement митинг—an open-air political rally
mystification—the mental state of one confronted by the inexplicable мистификация—a hoax
normal—ordinary, everyday, that which is expected

нормальный—not defective or damaged, of good quality, entirely suitable

ненормальный—of an object: damaged or defective; of a person: not sound in mind

notebook—a notepad in the form of a book ноутбук—a laptop computer
object—any distinct physical thing such as a pencil or the planet Mars; the goal toward which a course of action is directed объект—a building, factory, or other facility, often with a military purpose
original—not a copy; the product of a new creative process оригинальный—unusual, strange, eccentric
pathetic—poor and dejected, wholly inadequate (of an effort or excuse) пафосный—impressive-sounding but empty (of speech)
preservative—a substance added to a product such as food, drink, or medicine to keep it fresh and to prevent it from spoiling презерватив—a condom
provocation—an action performed principally to anger or annoy another person провокацияan action intended to annoy or inconvenience a political foe in order to provoke a response; a subterfuge in which agents of one political faction do something disreputable or illegal and make it look like it was done by their enemies.
principled—holding oneself to high principles of conduct принципиальный—standing on principle in trivial matters (as in “It’s the principle of the thing!”)
scandal—the public attention which ensues when a shameful matter involving well-known persons is revealed скандал—a noisy scene with voices raised in anger
school—a place where persons of any age are instructed in classrooms including colleges and universities школа—a place where children (up through high school) are instructed in classrooms
seance—a meeting at which contact with the dead is attempted, frequently through a spirit medium сеанс—a session (of artistic activity, of the use of a computer by a logged in user, etc.); a showing of a motion picture
separator—a partition which keeps things apart, a device for moving things further apart сепаратор—a cream separator (a device used in a dairy)
sex—1) the character of being male or female; 2) attraction of one sex to the other; 3) sexual intercourse (since the 1960’s) секс—sexual intercourse, viewed primarily as a physical act
sexual—related to the fact that humans are male and female сексуальный—overtly sexual in appearance or behavior
site—the place where an event occurs or a building or other object is installed or constructed сайт—a website
sportsman—one who hunts or fishes for sport

спортсмен—an athlete (of either sex)

спортсменка—a female athlete

Sputnik—Sputnik I (an artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957)

спутник—a traveling companion, by analogy a moon, an artificial moon

спутник жизни—a spouse

student—one who studies, a school child, a university student

студе́нт—a university student (of either sex)

студентка—a female university student

transmission—the act of conveying something, especially something unseen or abstract such disease, electricity, or a television program; a mechanical device for conveying motive energy from a producer to the thing driven трансмиссия—an automatic automobile transmission (gearbox)
trick—a deception, a slight-of-hand, a clever move трюк—a stunt such as might be performed by an acrobat
tsar—an emperor of Russia царь—a king, except for Western kings (of England, France, etc.) who are “король