I’ve had a lot of embarrassing moments in Italy while learning the Italian language.
A common trap in learning a new language is false friends: words that look identical in both languages but actually don’t mean the same thing. For example, let’s take the “sensitive” and “sensible” case:
Sensitive is sensibile in Italian.
Sensible is sensitivo in Italian.
My story has to do with a false friend, the grammatical false friend, that is.
FALSE FRIEND STORY
My mother-in-law came home from the grocery store one day excited to show me an item that she had just bought. It was lemon curd imported from the UK. Since it was imported from the UK, she was excited to show it to me as the label was all in English and she wanted to know what it said. All she understood was that it was some kind of lemon spread judging from the picture on the label. I happily told her that she guessed right and congratulated her on her beginner English. Then I proceeded to see what was written in the ingredients and attempted to translate them for her.
I finished the short list of ingredients and then finally arrived at, “NO PRESERVATIVES.”
I wanted to tell my mother-in-law that there were no preservatives in the jam as to reassure her that she made a health-conscious purchase. I didn’t know the word in Italian for “preservatives” but I figured that it was one of those words that were similar to English. With an impressed look on my face I informed her, “…e non ci sono preservativi!” “…and there are no preservatives!”
She made a sound acknowledging my comment but didn’t really respond, otherwise. I guess she didn’t really care about “preservativi” in her lemon curd.
Well, it turns out that preservativi are not preservatives. False friends. “Preservativi” mean “condoms”. That’s right, I told my mother-in-law that there were no condoms in her lemon curd. That explains her minimal response to my comment. She must have had her doubts about the UK food-safe standards.
What’s funny is that she never corrected me. She probably didn’t want to be the person to embarrass me. So I went on saying “preservativi” every time I wanted to translate “preservatives”, only now, with confidence since no one seemed to correct me. It wasn’t until I was at a dinner that my husband very publicly pointed out my error. Well noted.
For those of you learning Italian, beware of these false friends, especially the ones that can get you in trouble. You don’t want to be telling people they have condoms in their food.