German language tip: Matratzen = mattresses, Matrosen = sailors

Be careful not to confuse the two.

Since we're sharing: During a conversation in German, I talked about seeing Unfall (accident) instead of Abfall (garbage) on the street. To my credit, I immediately corrected my error. To my discredit, the error was made at the state finals of a German language contest.

Comments (24)
  1. Marquess says:

    And Mätresse = mistress (as in the woman you have “fun” with besides your wife).

    “Ich liebe es, auf dicken Mätressen zu schlafen” doesn’t actually sound completely wrong. But almost

  2. tsrblke says:

    In spanish "embarazada" is a false congnate for "Embarassed" (I learned: desconcertado for that).  So you’ll often get learners telling people they’re pregnant when they make a social faux paux.  Ironic isn’t it.

    My spanish teacher in highschool used to highlight this with the story of one of his college mates in Spain who, while at the dance club chatting up this guy accidently made that mistake after already embarassing herself.  Needless to say, the poor confused man left quickly.

  3. Josh says:

    While practicing his German with a bunch of rather large construction workers, a friend of mine managed to make the mistake of using "Ich bin" instead of "Mir ist" when talking about the weather on a muggy day, and also happened to have issues with his "ü"s.  What should have been "Mir ist schwül" (it feels muggy) became "Ich bin schwul" (I am gay).

  4. Marquess says:

    But one would rather say “es ist schwül” (It’s muggy) than “mir ist schwül.”

  5. Someone You Know says:

    Ah, false cognates.

    There was this cheesy action movie a few months ago, "Ninja Assassin", much of which takes places in Berlin. At one point there’s a shot of a sign in a parking garage reading AUSFAHRT, "exit".

    When I was watching this in a theater, a teenage couple behind me shouted "ASS FART!" at the tops of their lungs and collapsed into giggles. Thus is the state of the American education system.

  6. waleri says:

    In russian it is even easier to confuse those two:

    "Matras" for "mattress"

    "Matros" for "sailor"

    They sound different, but when written, a single letter can turno "Send two matresses" into "Two sailors came"

  7. programmer says:


    I lived in Germany for 7 years.

    Never heard the word "schwul" used except in his gay meaning.

  8. Voo says:

    @programmer: As far as I’m concerned there’s no other meaning to "schwul" in modern german, but there’s a big difference between schwÜl and schwUl.

  9. Peter da Silva says:

    Vodka / Voda

    Cafard / Canard

  10. Marquess says:

    Schwul is used, at least by adolescents, much like gay in English. "Schwul oder was?" is basically a way of saying "you dumb or something?"

  11. brazzy says:

    A very interesting case is English "mundane" (ordinary) vs. German "mondän" (sophisticated) – they have almost exactly the opposite meaning despite being derived from the same Latin word "mundus", world. Presumably the English meaning is derived from the theological use where "wordly" is the opposite of "spiritual", whereas the German meaning is based on seeing "wordly" as the opposite of "provincial".

  12. D Stro says:

    @brazzy– Then again, in English, you might also say mundane==worldly and cosmopolitan==worldly, but mundane!=cosmopolitan and worldly!=worldly (for some values of worldly). XD

    My personal favorite false cognate is constipado (Spanish).  It’s so much fun to say, even if it just means you have a cold.

  13. Voo says:

    If we’re sharing false cognates I think we shouldn’t forget a classic.. “gift” – that’s “poison” in German.. “Here’s your gift” gets a completely new meaning ;)

    [My German teacher told a story of how a friend sent him a package from the U.S. and, in an attempt to avoid import duty, wrote GIFT all over the box. Unfortunately, this only served to intensify the interest of the customs officials… -Raymond]
  14. Michael Puff says:

    Prerecord I am German. My English teacher called those words "false friends". And there are a lot more of them.

    sensitive (eng.) = sensibel (einfühlsam)

    sensible (eng.) = bewusst, empfindbar, merklich, …

    And because there is no rule you have to learn them by heart. Just like the irregular verbs.

  15. Mac says:

    The literal Italian translation of "to make sense" is "fare senso", which means more or less "being disgusting".

    Useless to say that in this light, the old "Making it all make sense" motto was pretty funny.

  16. John Douglass says:

    A friend once embarrassed herself by speaking of Noah’s "Arsch" (arse) instead of his "Arche" (ark).

  17. Drak says:

    Lots of funny things happen when you do on the fly dutch to german as well.

    Dutch: Zegels = Stamps

    German: Segeln = Sails

    Dutch: Mist = Fog

    German: Mischt = Shit

    Fun to walk into a post office and saying ‘Kann mann hier Segeln kaufen?’ (Can one buy sails here?)

    [ Apologies if my German spelling / grammar is off a bit, it’s been 12 years since I’ve been anywhere where I can practice :( ]

  18. Pi says:

    "German: Mischt = Shit"

    Actually that is also spelled "Mist" but you are forgiven since you will find many people in Germany who (normally speak in a dialect and) pronounce it like "Mischt"

  19. Arvid says:

    @Michael Puff: Hey ‘Luckie’, nice to see you’re also reading Raymond’s Blog.

  20. Jeremy Richards says:

    "But one would rather say “es ist schwül” (It’s muggy) than “mir ist schwül.”"

    However, at least in the (somewhat backcountry) corner of Germany I lived in briefly, it would be more common to say "es ist mir schwül" or less formally "mir ist’s schwül"  (contracting the es and the ist)

  21. David Jones says:

    What is it about mattresses and sailors? This fails in French as well:

    Mattress: matelas

    Sailor: matelot

    Considering that the final consonants in each word are silent, the two differ only in the final vowel sound.

  22. Public Defender says:

    I’m an American who lived in Dominican Republic for a while.  Once, feeling fed up with work, walked into office break room and said "Fue la ultima paja!"

    In English, it literally means, "That was the last straw!", i.e., "I’m really fed up with this situation."  In Dominican Spanish, it means, "I just had an orgasm."

    It took quite a while for my Dominican co-workers to stop laughing.

  23. Jens says:

    I’m from Denmark. A long time ago I had a friend who wasn’t very good at english yet. Some english speaking students were visiting our school, and one evening my friend wanted to see some personal belongings of one of the students. So he asked her if he could have a look at her "private parts". She promptly denied.

  24. Ray Trent says:

    Also, in English, make sure not to confuse:

    set (put in place)

    set (determine a setting)

    set (fix a value)

    set (establish a record)

    set (fix in a border, such as with jewels)

    set (make ready)

    set (to a certain position)

    set (located in a place as in movies)

    set (disappear beyond the horizon)

    set (adapt for performance in a different way)

    set (plant seeds)

    set (apply or start)

    set (a group of things)

    set (collect more than the bid tricks in bridge)

    set (an abstract collection of numbers)

    Oh, I could go on. English… and they say Chinese is hard for non-speakers to learn.

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