Is there a term, perhaps used by linguists, that refers to two words that have a similar form, either written or spoken, and almost identical meaning or at least relatively similar, but appearing in two languages?

I found some terms similar to this meaning, such as "cognate", which requires that the words have a shared origin, and "false cognate", which requires that the words have no shared origin. Is there a single term that includes both cognates and false cognates, as I have no concern for whether the words share an origin or not?

  • 1
    See also Linguistics
    – Kris
    Nov 19, 2014 at 14:07
  • I don't know the answer to your question. But I do know what the French call words which mean one thing in French and something else in English - faux amis (false friends). There are hundreds of them. Some which have totally different meanings and others where the meaning is slightly different in French. I well remember the occasion in my youth when I refused more food from a French hostess, to guffaws of laughter around the table, when I said - Je suis plein (lit. I am full), which is a crude way of saying 'I'm pregnant'!
    – WS2
    Nov 19, 2014 at 14:12
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    Cognates are words/morphemes that derive from the parent language of two languages. Borrowings are borrowed after the two languages are already distinct. If they're neither cognates nor borrowings, then they're probably false cognates/friends with bigger semantic differences than you realise. If there really is no semantic difference then you'd call it a coincidence! But there are very few of those, perhaps just mama and papa. Nov 19, 2014 at 14:32
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    @curiousdannii There are at least a few other famous coincidental ones: Farsi bad means ‘bad’ but is etymologically unrelated; German haben and Latin habere both mean ‘have’ and both have the stem hab(e)- but are etymologically unrelated; Greek θεός (theós) [stem θεό-], Latin deus [stem deo-], and Nāhutal teotl [stem teo-] all mean approximately ‘God’ but are unrelated; etc. Nov 19, 2014 at 15:58
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    @curiousdannii Nāhuatl is not Indo-European; it's Uto-Aztecan. All the words I mentioned have very firmly established etymologies and are classic examples of coincidental similarity. Nov 20, 2014 at 10:59

4 Answers 4


There are several reasons why words in two languages might sound and mean similarly.

  1. One (or both) of the words may be borrowed,
    like radio, curry, or tea, in many unrelated languages.
  2. One of the words may be a descendant from the same source as the other,
    like Spanish articles el, la and Italian articles il, la.
    (Words related like this are called Cognates < Lat co-g(e)natus 'born together')
  3. It may simply be an accident,
    like English hole and Yucatec Maya /ho:l/ 'hole', or Latin dua '2' and Malay duwa '2'.
    It is estimated that any two languages have around half-a-dozen such pairs, on the average,
    and they provide no evidence for anything except the vagaries of lexical sound and meaning.

In any event, there is no term that covers all and only these phenomena.

  • And there's a fourth group, too, that of universal applicability (for lack of a better term, though it's not universal): mama/papa words, various onomatopoeia, etc. Dec 4, 2014 at 2:44
  • Onomatopoeia is surprisingly diverse. And there's very little interlanguage universalism in sound symbolism. Dec 4, 2014 at 2:47
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    Despite their diversity, onomatopoeia for a loud explosion tend to have an initial bilabial plosive and (if possible) a final nasal in a lot more languages than chance would allow. Same goes for creaking and initial velars/uvulars, and for flowing water and sibilants. Dec 4, 2014 at 2:51

I feel what you're asking has nothing to do with "cognates". "Cognates" is a highly technical term relating of the origin of words.

I believe you're simply asking "what the hell do you call it when the word is the same in two languages?"

Surprisingly I think there is no word for such a thing and that's the answer.

{Going back to cognates. Say there was a word, X, for what you ask. Linguists and specialists would then say "oh, most X are due to them being cognates." But sometimes X is simply due to loan words ("tv") or other reasons, or coincidence. You're simply asking for the term for "same word in both languages" -- again surprisingly IMO there is no such word.}

Note that today the socially correct answer for SWR, where, the answer is "there's no such word", is "there's no such word."

I'm pretty sure that's the answer in this case (surprisingly!)

  • Cognates are one explanation for "X".
    – Fattie
    Nov 19, 2014 at 16:05
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    @oerkelens Loan words do not usually fall under the category of cognates. Cognates are words that evolve separately in related languages, from a common ancestral source. Loan words have evolve once in one language and are then borrowed piecemeal into another. For example, name in English and nom in French are cognates; but nom de plume in French and English are not cognates—that’s just a loan word. Noun is arguably cognate with French nom, since it has developed separately within English since it was borrowed from Norman French. Nov 19, 2014 at 16:07
  • "Noun" and "nom" are generally not considered to be cognates, at least in historical linguistics, simply because however "noun" has developed, it was still originally a borrowed word. A cognate has to date back to the time when the languages originally split.
    – herisson
    Dec 3, 2014 at 22:52

Just call it a shared word. English and French for instance have many shared words. Some of them are borrowed, some are cognates, some are false cognates and some are simply onamonapias. But the point you are looking for is simply that they exist in both locations.

  • A very sensible solution! Merry Xmas !
    – Fattie
    Dec 24, 2014 at 17:20

Another option might be applying congruent/congruency/congruous to the term. Congruent, according to the FreeDictionary, means coinciding exactly when superimposed and generally relates to math(s)/geometry.

If one were to apply the term to "the same word, that looks alike and mean alike", I wouldn't find it incongruous to apply a term that feels like matching to words.

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