Language professionals are often amazed by the similarities that can be found between languages. As we are all aware, groups of languages belong to language families and therefore invariably share the same characteristics and/or structures. It is arguably easier, for example, to translate French into Italian than French into Polish, or, to take it a step further, much easier to translate Polish into Russian than, let us say, Polish into Inuktitut or Xhosa.
However easy it is translating between languages within the same language family (for example, Slavonic to Slavonic, Germanic to Germanic or even Indo-European to Indo-European), there is one imp of a problem that is forever the bane of translators and editors. This is, of course, the infamous false friend, faux ami or fałszywy przyjaciel. Examples abound: preservative in English versus preserwatywa (condom) in Polish, or čerstvý (fresh) in Czech versus czerstwy (stale) in Polish.
A fascinating example of this is the English word biscuit which means different things to different people, depending on which side of the Atlantic one resides. The two most common definitions of biscuit are: (i) British: “small, flat sweet cake” (known as cookie in the US) and (ii) American: “small round bread leavened with soda”. We can also add to this two definitions were are less common: (iii) “pale brown colour” and (iv) “fired piece of unglazed ceramic ware” (usually bisque).
This interesting bifurcation of meaning (British versus American) can be traced to the ambiguous nature of the word’s etymology. Biscuit stems from the 16th century word bisket which in turn can be traced back to the Middle English word bysquyte. This stems from the Old French word bescuit which literally means “twice cooked”, which itself was altered under the influence of the Old Italian biscotto which meant “twice baked” (which is rooted in the Medieval Latin bis coctus. The word’s derivation is fascinating.
The Polish biskwit has a similar cognate line and stems from the French biscuit. Interestingly, the word is a synonym of biszkopt which can also be traced back to the Medieval Latin bis coctus and was originally adopted into Polish as biskokt and then later biszkokt. What is fascinating about this word is its meaning, which is slightly different from the English (British and American).
The Polish biskwit or biszkopt might well be translated into English as a sponge cake, ladyfinger or Génoise (cake) (not to be confused with pain de Gênes, which is an almond cake) and has little to do with the British biscuit and nothing in common with the American biscuit. False friends may well be confusing but are extremely interesting to the language professional.