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False friends – eventually

I’m fascinated by false friends between languages – those words or expressions which look like they are the same in two languages but turn out to mean something quite different. Like Spanish “embarazada” and “constipado”, which actually mean “pregnant” and “with a cold”.

“Eventually” is one of my favourites. Native English speakers know it means “in the end”, “sooner or later”, so when we say something will happen eventually, we mean we are sure it will happen but don’t know when. There’s an adjective “eventual” too, of course, as in “the eventual outcome”.

Most Western European languages have a similar word: French éventuel, German eventuell, Dutch eventueel Spanish/Catalan/Portuguese eventual, Italian eventuale, etc. but here’s where the fun starts: they all use it to mean “possibly”. In fact English has this meaning when we talk about “in the event of…”, or even “in the unlikely event of”. So when French speakers say “Eventuellement…”, they mean “perhaps, who knows”. It’s no longer the timing which is doubtful but the event itself.

It is scary how many professional translators get this wrong. But what happens when a German is speaking English to an Italian and says “eventually”? There is a good chance that they will understand each other perfectly well, because both will use the “wrong”, European meaning of the English term. It’s a great example of how EuroSpeak, (ESL in continental Europe) is diverging from the English spoken by natives. I have been present in meetings with delegates from all over Europe where someone says “eventually” and the only person in the room who misunderstands the intent is the (monolingual) Brit!

This is an interesting situation, because it is not so easy any more to criticise the Europeans for using the wrong meaning of “eventual”. You could argue that the true meaning of “eventual” in EuroSpeak is the European meaning, not the traditional English one, and it’s the Brits and Americans who will have to adjust to this.

I wonder what “eventually” will eventually mean.

For a similar article read False Friends – actually


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