There are cases where a word in another language means something else in another one. I do not mean cognates or loan words having close but not identical meanings, but two words in different languages with no etymological connection ending up looking or sounding the same. This can lead to misunderstandings, humor, or awkward situations.

For one example, Finns are instructed to avoid saying "katso!" ("look!") when in Italy. (I prefer not to give the corresponding Italian word explicitly in an attempt to keep my language clean.) For another example, here is a Finnish comic about "chat customer service", playing with the meaning of "chat" in French:


Are there similar recorded cases between Latin and other ancient languages? Surely there must be some similarities with unexpected words between Latin and, say, Greek.

(I am not happy with my wording of the title. Suggestions for something more concise are welcome. This is also a hard one for tagging.)

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    The general term for these, to my understanding, is "false cognates".
    – Draconis
    Jun 9, 2018 at 17:09
  • @Draconis Hmm... I've never heard of that term. Does it cover cases where the two words are from distant languages and mean completely different things? Like when a Latin word is obscene in Finnish? I hope anyone wouldn't treat them as cognates to any extent, but just similar in written or spoken appearance.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 9, 2018 at 17:15
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    They're also sometimes called "false friends" (calquing some foreign term), and are known for being annoying when learning languages: for instance, Latin mortalis does not mean "lethal" (as in English "a mortal wound") but rather "able to die". I would imagine it includes words that are originally completely unrelated, though the famous examples I know tend to actually have some etymological connection.
    – Draconis
    Jun 9, 2018 at 17:22
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    I think the term "false cognates" applies to cases like Eng. "have" vs Sp. haver, or Eng. "day" vs Sp. dia, which at first sight appear to be cognates, but really aren't
    – varro
    Jun 9, 2018 at 22:05

2 Answers 2


One example that I think fits is L. Roma vs Gk. ῥώμη ("might"). (Presumably the latter in the Doric dialect would be ῥώμα, an even closer match.)


The narrowest and most interesting way to interpret your question is that you want anecdotes exemplifying language-based misunderstandings between ancient individuals; like, if Caesar said "Ave" and Cleopatra thought he was talking about birds. Sadly I'm not aware of any such anecdotes myself.

Interpreting the question broadly, there are literally hundreds of examples of scholars holding incorrect beliefs based on coincidental similarities of pronunciation between words in different languages. I'm thinking of false etymologies. The Wikipedia page on folk etymology lists many examples from all kinds of languages, but most notably

the word baceler or bacheler ... referred to a junior knight. It is attested from the eleventh century, though its ultimate origin is uncertain. By the late Middle Ages its meaning was extended to the holder of a university degree inferior to master or doctor. This was later re-spelled baccalaureus, probably reflecting a false derivation from bacca laurea "laurel berry" ...

Also, an intra-Latin example:

sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus ... from sin- (one) and crescere (to grow) ... An often repeated folk etymology proposes that sincere is derived from the Latin sine (without), cera (wax). According to one popular explanation, dishonest sculptors in Rome or Greece would cover flaws in their work with wax to deceive the viewer; therefore, a sculpture "without wax" would mean honesty in its perfection. ... Another explanation is that this etymology "is derived from a Greeks-bearing-gifts story of deceit and betrayal. For the feat of victory, the Romans demanded the handing over of obligatory tributes. Following bad advice, the Greeks resorted to some faux-marble statues made of wax, which they offered as tribute. These promptly melted in the warm Greek sun." The Oxford English Dictionary states, however, that "there is no probability in the old explanation from sine cera 'without wax'".

Finally, for a perennial case of cultural confusion between a Scandinavian-derived word and a similar-sounding Latin-derived word, look no further than niggardly.

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    Welcome to the site! These are interesting examples, but they answer a different question. I was wondering about similarities between two languages, not within a single one. We could have a separate question about that.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 9, 2018 at 20:16

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