Easy Italian Lesson 9: False Cognates

Easy Italian Lesson 9: False Cognates:

Italian False Cognates are spelled similar to English, but have no related meanings.

Previous Lessons One through Seven list words in English and Italian with similar spellings and similar meanings.

The previous Lesson Eight explains Cognates that look alike and have different meanings -- but do suggest the correct meanings.

For example, LIBRARIE in Italian, is different from the English word it resembles (library) because it means bookstore, but similar in that both have to do with books.


This lesson examines a related topic – Italian False Cognates with spelling similar to English -- but with different and misleading meanings than the English words they resemble -- not at all related to the meanings of those English words.

This lesson will take you to yet another level of similarities-with-differences between English and Italian.


In these Easy Italian Lessons are letters written by someone taking a first trip to Italy -- and discovering that many Italian words are similar to English words.

Read Italian Words in English Sentences

The following letter in English has a few Italian words mixed in. This starts you reading a few Italian words in the easiest way – in a context of familiar English words in English sentences.

Reading Italian words in English sentences is the very easiest way to begin to read Italian.

In the following story, the ITALIAN WORDS are IN CAPITAL LETTERS.



Dear Billy Bob,

After I was here in Italy I began to realize that some of the words that look related to English do not have the same meaning in Italian as English.

In my hotel bathroom the sink faucets read CALDA and FREDDA. So I assumed from all cognates I been seeing that CALDA means ‘cold’, but no, it means ‘hot’ - and FREDDA is ‘cold’.

PAROLE are ‘words’.

GOLF means ‘sweater’.

COME means ‘how’.

CON means ‘with’.

Last night I stayed not in a hotel but in a PENSIONE or ‘boarding house’.

There are many others words in Italian that could fool you.

MORBIDO is ‘soft’.

GRILLO is a ‘cricket’.

GRASSO is ‘fat’.

STRETTO is ‘tight’.

GONNA is not Italian slang for ‘going to’; it’s a ‘skirt’.

I was reading a magazine article about FARE LA FAME, which I thought would be ‘the price of fame’ that we've heard about. Wrong again - it means "struggling” (literally ‘to do anger’).

I've also found more than one Italian word that means what it appears to but also means something else too.

Yesterday I was at the supermarket shopping when I noticed a sign advertising a sale on RISO, which means ‘rice’ but also means ‘smile’.

PIANO means ‘softly’, and ‘floor’, and the musical instrument ‘pianoforte’.

ETICHETTA means both ‘label’ and ‘etiquette’.

OPERA means both ‘work’ and ‘opera’.

GOLF means both ‘cardigan sweater’ and ‘golf’

FINE (the end).

-- Candace


In the previous lessons you have seen how Italian and English “share” thousands of words that, in their written form at least, are identical or strikingly similar.

If every one of the look-alike words meant the same thing in both languages, that would be Super-Easiest Italian. Then you could go to Rome and just assume that any Italian word that looks remotely familiar means the same thing as its English cognate that you already know.

The first reaction when seeing an Italian word spelled identically to English may be to think it means what it means in English. It's an unavoidable reaction, at first, until you become aware that with some look-alikes you will need to retrain yourself.

So now that you have seen some of the many similarities in Italian-English vocabulary, be aware that there are some pitfalls in words that look alike (and/or sound alike). Sometimes these words mean entirely different things. Other times the Italian word has another secondary meaning different from the English cognate.

The two languages have in common many words that are similar in form but partially or totally different in meaning. This is true, for example, of SALE, SOLE, and COME along with many others.

These words are called False Friends in English, (or amici falsi in Italian). It is this resemblance in form that, for some pairs of words, is a dangerous trap for any English-speaker starting to learn Italian.

If the adopted Italian word is technical or specialized, its original meaning may have been retained.

But in many cases the cognates have diverged, partially or totally, to have different meanings to differing degrees. There have been greater or lesser shifts in meaning, as well as specialization or generalization, loss of some meanings, or the acquisition of new meanings. A word in English that is in everyday use may be limited in Italian to a particular use such as formal, literary, technical (medical, legal, etc.).

This lesson does not confine its treatment of "cognates" to pairs of words in Italian and English that have a common origin; it also includes words whose similarity in form is purely coincidental.

Words like these show why the approach in this book is essential. In learning a new related language, one of the first things it helps deal with is the way it overlaps your first language. So cognates that look identical or somewhat similar may have similar meanings -- or different meanings.

As mentioned in the earlier lesson on identical look-alikes, Italian pronunciation differs so greatly from English that the different sound helps reduce possible confusion of these cognates. Any confusion is thus limited to the visual word -- since it becomes, in effect, a different word when spoken. So the seeming disadvantage of a different pronunciation which must be learned for a Italian look-alike is actually an advantage that can help you realize that a particular look-alike word may have a different meaning.

Some of these false friends spelled exactly alike are listed below.

For each English word (in the left column), its Italian equivalent (in the middle column) is misleading in that it is spelled identically to a totally unrelated English word.



False Look-Alikes and Sound-Alikes


but -- ma -- [‘ma’]

was -- era -- [‘era’]

butter -- il burro -- [‘burro’]

meter -- il metro -- [‘metro’]

plan / flat -- il piano -- [‘piano’]

weather -- il tempo -- [‘tempo’]

room -- la camera -- [‘camera’]

be / make -- far -- [‘far’]

Hello! (telephone) -- Pronto! -- [‘pronto’]


False Cognates Pronounced Differently in Italian


bee -- ape -- [AH-peh]

dog -- cane -- [KAH-neh]

hunger -- fame -- [FAH-meh]

bread -- pane -- [PAH-neh]

sea -- mare -- [MAH-reh]

evil (n.) -- male -- [MAH-leh]

sun -- sole -- [SOH-leh]

blackberries -- more -- [MOH-reh]

end -- fine -- [FEE-neh]

room -- stanza -- [STAHN-tsah]

needle -- ago -- [AH-goh]

taste -- gusto -- [GOO-stoh]

batteries -- pile -- [PEE-leh]

kilos -- chili -- [KEE-lee]

tuxedo -- smoking -- [ZMOH-keen]


room -- camera -- [KAH-meh-rah]

summer -- estate -- [eh-STAH-teh]

words -- parole -- [pah-ROH-leh]

health -- salute -- [sah-LOO-teh]

ant -- formica -- [fohr-MEE-kah]


two -- due -- [DOO-eh]

her, his, its, your -- sue -- [SOO-eh]

where -- dove -- [DOH-veh]

as / how -- come -- [KOH-meh]

badly -- male -- [MAH-leh]


do / make -- fare -- [FAH-reh]

give -- dare -- [DAH-reh]

to be -- stare -- [STAH-reh]

say -- dire -- [DEE-reh]

says -- dice -- [DEE-cheh]


False Cognates Spelled Differently Than English

Unlike the Italian false cognates above that are spelled like an English word, the Italian words below are spelled differently than English, but have parts that look enough like an English word that you might mistake them for.


leader -- capo -- [KAH-poh]

hand -- mano -- [MAH-noh]

less -- meno -- [MEH-noh]

are -- sono -- [SOH-noh]

rope -- fune -- [FOO-neh]

cricket -- grillo -- [GREEL-loh]

boiled -- lesso -- [LEHS-soh]

pin -- spillo -- [SPEEL-loh]

brooch -- spilla -- [SPEEL-lah]

cough -- tosse -- [TOHS-seh]

head -- testa -- [TEHS-tah]

envelope -- busta -- [BOOS-tah]

once -- volta -- [VOHL-tah]

loud -- forte -- [FOHR-teh]

prints (film) -- stampe -- [STAHM-peh]

this -- questo -- [KWEHS-toh]


chest -- petto -- [PEHT-toh]

made -- fatto -- [FAHT-toh]

bed -- letto -- [LEHT-toh]

chicken -- pollo -- [POHL-loh]

I read -- leggo -- [LEHG-goh]

ball -- palla -- [PAHL-lah]

feather -- penna-- [PEHN-nah]

neck (nape) -- coppa -- [KOHP-pah]

broken -- rotta -- [ROHT-tah]

inside -- dentro -- [DEHN-troh]

tail -- coda -- [KOH-dah]

Look! -- Gardi! -- [GWAHR-dee]


noise -- rumore -- [roo-MOH-reh]

oysters -- ostriche -- [OH-stree-keh]

soft -- morbido -- [MOHR-bee-doh]

stop lights -- arresto -- [ahr-REH-stoh]

jump (v) -- saltare -- [sahl-TAH-reh]

sautéed -- saltato -- [sahl-TAH-toh]

knock (v) -- bussare -- [boo-SAH-reh]


thumb -- pollice -- [POH-lee-cheh]

shaved ice -- granita -- [grahn-NEE-tah]

boyfriend -- ragazzo -- [rah-GAHT-soh]

girlfriend -- ragazza -- [rah-GAHT-sah]

coat -- cappotto -- [kahp-POHT-toh]

knife -- coltello -- [kohl-TEHL-loh]

lost -- smarriti -- [smahr-REE-tee]

broken down -- in panne -- [een PAHN-neh]


lawyer -- avvocato -- [ahv-voh-KAH-toh]

noisy -- rumoroso -- [roo-moh-ROH-soh]

waitress / maid -- cameriera -- [kah-meh-RYEH-rah]

bellboy -- fattorino -- [faht-toh-REE-noh]

real estate -- immobili -- [eem-MOH-bee-lee]

building -- stabile -- [STAH-bee-leh]

area -- superficie -- [soo-pehr-FEECH-yeh]


The preceding lists of false look-alikes are only partial. There are also many more near look-alikes, spelled somewhat similarly, that have different meanings in the two languages.

So Italian has many of these False Friends. So you need to be aware that when you see or hear an Italian word similar to English, you cannot assume it has the same meanings as the English word.

Your first step in Easiest Italian is reading these lessons through to get the general idea of how cognates can make Italian easier for you.

Then you might want to reread the lists of words in each chapter enough to be able to remember which cognates are the ones that have a similar meaning in Italian as in English, and which ones have different meanings, like the ones in this lesson.


Sentences in Italian using False Friends


Italian Things.

Cose Italiane.


Hot summer in full sun.



A very beautiful boulevard.

Un VIALE molto bello.


Sherbet for breakfast.

Granita per colazione.


To buy one kilo of bread.

Comperare un chilo di PANE.


Butter without salt.

Burro senza sale.


Fat belly.

Pancia GRASSA.


To wear a tuxedo for a gala night.

Vestirsi in SMOKING per una serata di gala.


A dress of soft silk.

Un vestito di seta MORBIDA.


Dining room.

CAMERA da pranzo.


To drink to the health.



To say words of love.

DIRE PAROLE d'amore.


This lesson has described what are sometimes referred to as ‘false cognates’, and this lesson has used that term for consistency and clarity.

However, ‘false cognates’ are more properly referred to as ‘false friends’, because technically ‘cognates’ are strictly words that are similar in spelling and meaning.


EASY ITALIAN -- LESSON 10 -- PRONUNCIATION of Italian You Know from English

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