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False friends – actually

Actually – another of my favorite false friends.

In normal English it means “in fact”, and the adjective “actual” means “real”. But – just like “eventually” – it means something different in EuroSpeak. Most western European languages have a look-alike word – actuel, aktuell, actual and so on – but they all mean “current/currently”. So when a non-native speaker of English says “actually” you can never be sure whether they mean “really” or “at the moment”.

Accountants make comparisons between “Budget” and “Actual” numbers. The budget, which is a plan for the future, may plan for sales of 100 million, but when the time comes, only 80 million sales are achieved. So the “actual” or real figure is 80 million. But you can see how easy it is for Europeans accustomed to their own meaning of “actual” to interpret this as a contrast between “forecast (in the past)” and “current”. This tends to reinforce the confusion.

I recently reviewed a translation into English of a Spanish document about a gaseous fire extingushing system which referred to the “densidad actual”. The translator, aware of the meaning of the Spanish word “actual”, had rendered it as “current density”. But I changed it to “actual density”, because it was clear that the original Spanish term was a bad adaptation from the English term “actual density”. Spanish engineers refer to this as “densidad actual” in the mistaken belief that it means “current”.

This was an example of a false, false friend, a kind of meta-false friend. I love collecting these. Perhaps one day the different English and European meanings of words like these will converge. On is tempted to ask what “actually” will mean “eventually”.

Click below to read False Friends – eventually

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