There is a term in the TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) world: false friends. It means words in another language which look so similar to one in your own language that you think they must mean the same.
Unfortunately this is often not true and using them can be spectacularly embarrassing. Take the English word embarrassed, for instance. There is a Spanish word embarazada. This is so obviously from the same source that the Spanish one has got to mean that feeling of wanting to drop through a hole in the floor because something has happened that is too humiliating to bear. Right?
Wrong. Embarazada means pregnant. Somewhere back in the mists of time they probably both meant one or the other, or perhaps something else entirely, but they went their separate ways and are now poles apart. It is even hard to imagine a situation where being pregnant is merely embarrassing – it is too highly-charged for that.
Most welcome, certainly. Inconvenient, maybe. Utterly unwelcome, in certain cases. But merely embarrassing, no.
Learning a foreign language is complex enough without the target moving all the time, but that is happening more than ever.
The British tennis player Heather Watson did quite well at the Miami Open this year and when she finally headed for home after a fourth round defeat, she tweeted “Thanks Miami Open. It’s been real”. What is a foreign student to make of that one?
In this case the false friend is the same English word, which most people know: real. It means genuine, true – something like that. And yet in recent years it has taken on a life of its own. First we had the expression “Keep it real”, for which there is no universally agreed definition and which can therefore mean whatever the user wants it to mean. Perhaps the most likely common meaning is “Don’t be pretentious. Keep it (your behavior, your attitude, your message or whatever it is) down-to-earth”.
So that’s something for the English-speaking population to wrestle with, never mind the poor language-learner.
Then there was unreal, which started to mean strange, weird, hard to believe. And not only that, but any of those things in either a positive or a negative sense. So Heather could equally well have said the Miami tournament had been unreal for her.
Unless, that is, it now means something else altogether and it just hasn’t filtered through to the Pedant yet.