What are Phantonyms? And What are False Friends? (English Vocabulary Lesson)



What are phantonyms? And what are false friends? Let’s find out about these common challenges for English learners on today’s episode of Thinking in English!



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Earlier this week, I was having a conversation with a friend about sports when he told me he was disinterested in an upcoming boxing fight. Disinterested. Now, most of you would probably assume that my friend had no particular interest in the boxing fight: in other words he didn’t really care about it and wasn’t planning to watch it on TV. And, that is exactly what he meant. 

HOWEVER, he made a very common English mistake: a mistake English speakers, even great speech makers like Barack Obama, make all the time. He used a phantonym. 

What is a Phantonym?

Disinterested is a phantonym – a word that seems to mean one thing, but actually means something else. As an English learner, you have to be careful to avoid the traps and tricks within the English language: there are many pieces of vocabulary and grammar which can be easily mistaken, misused, and confuse even native speakers. Phantonyms are one of the most challenging features of English.

What do you think disinterested means? Most people (including myself in the past) would probably assume that disinterested means that you have no interest in something. Dis- is a prefix that can be used to make something mean the opposite (think about ‘like’ and ‘dislike’) – so disinterested must be the opposite of interested…. Right? 

Wrong…Uninterested is the opposite of interested. Disinterested actually means that you have no self-interest in something: you are neutral, impartial, unbiased. It does not mean you are uninterested, but that you don’t have any personal involvement or connection to whatever you are talking about. 

The word phantonym was invented in 2009. If you’ve been studying English for a while, you’ve probably heard of synonyms – words that have similar meanings like ‘happy’ and ‘ecstatic.’ You may have also heard of antonyms – words that have opposite meanings (happy/sad or big/small) – and homonyms – words that have the same pronunciation and/or spelling but different meanings (to/too/two). 

In a 2009 New York Times article, Jack Rosenthal proposed “phantonym” as a new type of word: “a word that looks as if it means one thing but means quite another.” He wrote his article after then president Barack Obama gave a speech which included the phrase “a fulsome accounting.” Obama, one of the greatest speech makers and public speakers in recent years, fell into the trap of using a phantonym – he meant “a full accounting.” Fulsome doesn’t mean “full” – it means insincere or excessive, etc. Even though fulsome looks like it means “full”… it has quite a different meaning.

The point of this episode is not to scare you as an English learner, but to demonstrate that even native English speakers need to be careful about using words that they don’t really understand. I often proofread applications or resumes that include misused or poorly chosen words – and most of the time this is because the writer used words that they don’t actually understand. 

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What is a False Friend?

Similar to phantonyms are false friends. False friends are perhaps even more of a problem for English learners than phantonyms. A false friend is a word in a language that tricks learners into thinking it has a certain meaning because it looks similar to a word in their own language. In other words, false friends are a pair of words in different languages that look or sound similar but have different meanings.  Let me give you a few examples to make things clearer. 

Think about the English word embarrassed and the Spanish word embarazada (although they look similar, embarazada actually means “pregnant” – it would be a big mistake to confuse “embarrassed” and “pregnant”). Think about the English word gift, the German word gift (which means “poison”), and the Norwegian word gift (which means “married”). 

False friends can be a real challenge for language learners – as you think you know what the word means but actually don’t. I remember ordering a ‘cider’ from a restaurant menu after I first moved to Japan in 2016 and expecting an alcoholic drink made from apples (as this is what cider always means in the UK) – instead I was given a sweet soda which is what ‘cider’ means in Japan. 

For those of you who regularly write or speak in English, phantonyms and false friends can cause issues as they alter or change the meanings of your sentences. However, sometimes phantonyms are so commonly misused that the meaning has gradually begun to change – and dictionaries will even now include the ‘informal’ or mistaken meaning as well!

And I tend to not really care about the rules of language too much – if people use words and understand them, then I think that is fine. However, it is interesting to learn that certain words do not mean, or do not always mean, what you think!

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Common Phantonyms 

Here are some of the most common phantonyms in English. I’ve already talked about disinterested and fulsome so I won’t repeat these here!

Noisome

“Noisome” sounds and looks like it should mean “noisy” or something similar. However, “noisome” is actually related to the word “annoy” instead of “noise.” So, “noisome” is used to describe something that smells terrible or is generally unpleasant. 

“The dog’s noisome odour made me feel sick”

Suffrage

“Suffrage” looks like the word “suffer” but it has a very different meaning. It actually means the right to vote! “Suffragettes” were the women who fought for their rights to vote last century. And now in most democracies people of 18 have “suffrage” – they have the right to vote.

“The new law will guarantee universal adult suffrage in the country”

Invaluable 

“In-” is a prefix often used to make a word mean the opposite or negative – such as “insincere”, “incorrect”, or “inexpensive.” Therefore, “invaluable” must mean the opposite of valuable, right? Actually, no. “Invaluable” means something is very very valuable or useful. It is so valuable or useful that it is difficult to give a value to it! It is valuable beyond estimations. 

“He is an invaluable employee of this company”

Inflammable 

People often assume that “inflammable” means the opposite of “flammable,” but actually they are synonyms and mean the same thing. If something is “inflammable” it easily catches on fire. Flammable and inflammable tend to be used interchangeably in English, so there is a good chance you may see these words on products you buy in the future!

“Careful! The building is full of inflammable materials”

Enormity 

“Enormity”, in its original meaning, refers to “an immoral or illegal act.” Especially the scale, extent, or seriousness of “an immoral or illegal act.” However, most people tend to assume “enormity” has a similar meaning to “enormous.”

In fact, so many people have misused the word “enormity” that most dictionaries now include a second meaning of the word referring to large size. 

“The enormity of his crimes is shocking” 

Fortuitous 

“Fortuitous” sounds like “fortunate” so many people assume they have the same meaning – but actually these words are not the same. While “fortunate” refers to good fortune (such as being rich, attractive, in love, having a good job), “fortuitous” refers to something that happened by accident or chance – and can be positive or negative. People often use “fortuitous” instead of lucky to sound more intelligent, but they are actually misusing the word slightly! 

You were not “fortuitous” to attend a good school, you were “fortunate” or “lucky.” However, if a friend told you about a scholarship to the school just before you applied – that was a “fortuitous” event! 

False Friends (from the listeners of Thinking in English)!!!

Maria’s Suggestions (English and Spanish)

Library (place to borrow books) and libreria (place to buy books)

Fabric (cloth/material) and fabrica (factory)

Actually (really/used for emphasis) and actualmente (currently)

Constipated (can’t go to the toilet) and constipado (have a cold)

Hooshmand’s Suggestions (English and Persian)

Paw (animal foot) and paw (all feet)

Machine (apparatus using mechanical power to do something) and machine (car)

Pilar’s Suggestions (English and Spanish)

Spade (shovel) and una espada (sword)

Sensible (reasonable) and sensible (sensitive)

Dmitry’s Suggestions (Russian and English)

Accurate (correct) and аккуратный/akkuratnyy (careful/orderly)

Sara’s Suggestions (English and Italian)

Vacancy (unoccupied job/position) and vacanza (vacation)

Arianna’s Suggestions (English and Italian)

Morbid (disturbing/unpleasant/death/disease) and morbido (soft, fluffy etc)

Caplina’s Suggestion (English and Italian)

Parent (Mum/Dad) and parente (relative)

Factory (place where things are made) and fattoria (farm)

Final Thought 

On this episode of Thinking in English I have tried to talk about two of the most challenging features of a language – phantonyms and false friends. I then gave you a few examples of common phantonyms that even native speakers use incorrectly all the time! However, as my listeners speak a wide variety of different languages I don’t think I can make a list of “false friends.” 

Instead, I want you to tell me about any “false friends” between your language and English! What is a word in your language that looks or sounds similar to a word in English, but has a very different meaning? Such as the British Cider (alcoholic apple drink) and the Japanese cider (sweet soda drink)! If you leave a comment on the blog, on Spotify, or send me a message on Instagram I will keep updating this article and make a long list of “false friends” from languages all around the world!

Leave an example of a false friend between your language and English in the comments!!


13 responses to “What are Phantonyms? And What are False Friends? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”

  1. Hello Tom.
    Sometimes learning a different language come become tricky with the spelling similarities and the meaning interpretations, I agree but this is the funny thing of learning Languages. A false friend in Spanish and English could be: a spade(shovel) in English is not una espada (sword) in Spanish.
    Ah! I ‘d like you to know that ” una situación embarazosa” in Spanish have the same meaning than ” an embarrasing situation” in English, although as you said today. A woman who is embarazada is not that she is ashamed but pregnat. Can you grasp the difference? Things can be embarrasing but not persons..

    Like

  2. Among russian word “accurate” kind of confusing. In my language adjective ” аккуратный(tidy)” mixe up in speach “точный (accurate). Its not funny like embarrassed in Spain ,but its very often happens

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Tom! I really like your podcast and I appreciate so much the passion you put in what you do!
    I’m italian and until a while ago I always confused “vacancy” with “vacation”, because in italian vacation in “vacanza” .

    Thank you so much for your podcast! I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Tom! I really like your podcast and I appreciate so much the passion you put in what you do!
    I’m italian and until a while ago I always confused “vacancy” with “vacation”, because in italian vacation in “vacanza” .

    Thank you so much for your podcast! I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Tom! I really like your podcast and I appreciate so much the passion you put in what you do!
    I’m italian and until a while ago I always translated the word “vacancy” (instead of vacation) with the italian word ”vacanza” , and it was hard to extirpate the mistake from my mind 😆!

    Thank you so much for this podcast! I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. in Italian “morbido” means soft, fluffy and of course it gives you an idea of a very comfortable and cozy thing to relax yourself, absolutely it has not the same meaning of “morbid” in English…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In Italian “magazzino” means “warehouse” and has nothing to do with “magazine” in English. When I was a child I translated literally “Of course” with “Di corsa” (meaning: “running”). For the same reason “woman” sounded to me very similar to “uomo” (“man”). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. In Italian “magazzino” (storehouse) hasn’t the meaning of “magazine”. When I was a child I translated literally “Of course” with “Di corsa” (running) I also found that “woman” might well resemble the sound of “uomo” (man) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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13 responses to “What are Phantonyms? And What are False Friends? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”

  1. Hello Tom.
    Sometimes learning a different language come become tricky with the spelling similarities and the meaning interpretations, I agree but this is the funny thing of learning Languages. A false friend in Spanish and English could be: a spade(shovel) in English is not una espada (sword) in Spanish.
    Ah! I ‘d like you to know that ” una situación embarazosa” in Spanish have the same meaning than ” an embarrasing situation” in English, although as you said today. A woman who is embarazada is not that she is ashamed but pregnat. Can you grasp the difference? Things can be embarrasing but not persons..

    Like

  2. Other, the adjective sensible(the same spelling) in Spanish means sensitive , whereas in English means reasonable.

    Like

  3. Among russian word “accurate” kind of confusing. In my language adjective ” аккуратный(tidy)” mixe up in speach “точный (accurate). Its not funny like embarrassed in Spain ,but its very often happens

    Like

    1. Excellent! I’ll add this to the blog later!

      Like

  4. Hi Tom! I really like your podcast and I appreciate so much the passion you put in what you do!
    I’m italian and until a while ago I always confused “vacancy” with “vacation”, because in italian vacation in “vacanza” .

    Thank you so much for your podcast! I love it!

    Like

  5. Hi Tom! I really like your podcast and I appreciate so much the passion you put in what you do!
    I’m italian and until a while ago I always confused “vacancy” with “vacation”, because in italian vacation in “vacanza” .

    Thank you so much for your podcast! I love it!

    Like

  6. Hi Tom! I really like your podcast and I appreciate so much the passion you put in what you do!
    I’m italian and until a while ago I always translated the word “vacancy” (instead of vacation) with the italian word ”vacanza” , and it was hard to extirpate the mistake from my mind 😆!

    Thank you so much for this podcast! I love it!

    Like

  7. in Italian “morbido” means soft, fluffy and of course it gives you an idea of a very comfortable and cozy thing to relax yourself, absolutely it has not the same meaning of “morbid” in English…

    Like

    1. Amazing! “Morbid” has a very different meaning in English!

      Like

  8. In Italian “magazzino” means “warehouse” and has nothing to do with “magazine” in English. When I was a child I translated literally “Of course” with “Di corsa” (meaning: “running”). For the same reason “woman” sounded to me very similar to “uomo” (“man”). 🙂

    Like

  9. In Italian “magazzino” (storehouse) hasn’t the meaning of “magazine”. When I was a child I translated literally “Of course” with “Di corsa” (running) I also found that “woman” might well resemble the sound of “uomo” (man) 🙂

    Like

    1. Great!! I’ll add these to the list soon!

      I can definitely understand the confusion between “woman” and “uomo”!

      Like

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