Home Columns Anantha Narayan Truth about False Friends

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    It all started with a Kollywood flick called Anjaan. I assumed it’s a biopic about the Bollywood lyricist Lalji Pandey who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Anjaan’ (Hindi for anonymous). Turns out, it’s a typical dishoom dishoom Suriya movie featuring an ‘anjaan’ or fearless protagonist. That got me thinking about false friends or words that sound the same but have different meanings in different languages. My first encounter with a false friend was as a geeky teenager in Varanasi when I discovered kundi (Tamil slang for ‘rear’) meant latch in Hindi. I laughed out loud then. So did many buddies from Andhra when they figured out that randi (Telugu for ‘come’) meant a hooker, up north. With 1,635 recognised languages in our country, I am sure we have plenty of such inter-lingual oddities. Patti is one that comes to mind instantly. It cues a hamlet or a room in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, it’s a dog, while in the cow belt, they use it as synonym for bandage. Now you know why Mallus snigger at us when we say we love watching patti mandrams (a Tamil style debate).

    Spaniards often recount how foreigners think ‘Embarazada’ is the Spanish way of saying ‘embarrassed’ when it actually means ‘pregnant’. Another word that causes titters is preservativos. If a foodie walks into a mall in Madrid and asks for ‘preservativos’ you certainly won’t get preservatives. Prepared to receive a packet of ‘condoms’. If you travel back in time to Rome and enlist in an elementary maths academy, chances are you will find it too distasteful as the word ‘sex’ will rear its head way too often. But the moment you learn sex is six in Latin, you might just breathe easy.

    Likewise, if a Tamilian flies to Tokyo and asks for a ‘manga’ (mango), he might be handed a comic because that’s what it means in Japan. One can dig up a lot more. Apparently ‘hell’ in German means ‘light hue’. And ‘handy’ is a mobile phone. ‘Left’ is ‘turnip’ in Arabic, ‘exit’ is ‘success’ in Catalan, ‘gift’ is ‘to marry’ in Danish and ‘fart’ is ‘speed’ in Swedish. Clearly, with friends like these, you don’t need enemies.

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