Disclaimer: This question is probably on the brink of off-topicness; maybe, it is also opinion-based and I don't exclude it is way too broad. Nonetheless, I'm asking this out of curiosity: so, if you close this question, I won't complain; but if you answer, I'll appreciate.

To try to stay on track, let me state clearly the rules of the game.

First, I'm interested in the following bilingual settings or situations:

  1. Courses which are taught in a language which is not the local language (e.g. a course taught in English at a German university).
  2. Courses which are taught in the local language that adopt textbooks written in a different language.
  3. Students, researchers and professors who collaborate with people speaking different native languages.

Second, here is the question:

Have you got any example of technical terminology or symbology (from whatever field) which has been, in your experience, cause of confusion, misunderstandings or mistakes in the above given situations?

Let me give you a few examples I've come across:

  • In English, the term voltage denotes a common electrical quantity. The Italian term for voltage is tensione. Many Italian students who have been exposed to English classes, however, instead of using the correct term when speaking in Italian, use the mistranslated term voltaggio, which looks similar to the English term, but is incorrect.
  • In German and in several East European countries, the symbol used to denote voltages is U instead of the more common V. But this wouldn't cause much trouble were it not for the fact that the symbology employed to indicate the polarity of a voltage is opposite to that employed in US or in many other European countries. It took me a while to realize this, but now, if I have a technical discussion with someone from those countries, it's the first thing I point out to avoid many headaches to everybody.
  • A Czech researcher told me that the common low-pass or high-pass filters are actually called high-reject and low-reject filters in the Czech technical literature, and this was a major source of confusion when he started reading the English technical literature.

Note: I'm not interested in common words that can sound awkward or rude or offensive in another language, just technical terminology which can cause confusion.

  • 1
    Is there any particular reason why you are interested in this?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 22:10
  • @Wrzlprmft: Mostly curiosity about the nuances of terminology, but the first two examples I've given actually caused me a bit of trouble. Given that nowadays many universities have courses which are taught in a different language, and that international collaborations are frequent, I'm wondering if these sources of confusion are common or not, and if anyone else has specific examples, possibly from different fields. Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 22:30
  • 1
    Voting to close as too broad, though "opinion-based" would almost cut it. The problem here is that there is no real "right answer" so no basis for accepting one answer over any others. Perhaps it might be OK as community wiki but I don't see how it would avoid becoming a long, unfocused list. Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 22:38
  • 2
    @MassimoOrtolano But, again, that's just asking for an unfocused list of examples. What would constitute a good answer? What would be the best answer, which you would accept? Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 23:04
  • 2
    @DavidRicherby wouldn't it fit as a community wiki?
    – mkennedy
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 23:14

2 Answers 2


Actually, I think one of the biggest issues that we have to deal with as scientists is the use of writing conventions. For instance:

  • The "decimal point" in Europe is normally written as a comma. So a German would see that "a mile is 1,760 yards" might not know if a mile should be 5280 feet or 5.28 feet! (This can cause confusion when translating back and forth.)

  • Similarly, I have to be very careful with my handwriting, lest my audience think my "7" is a "1."

A lot of what you're talking about, though, I think falls either under the header of "false cognates" (or faux amis, as they're known in French), or of words with multiple definitions. As examples of the latter, for instance, Benzin in German can mean both "benzene" as well as "gasoline," while Neigung can mean both "slope" and "gradient."

  • In most cases, "slope" and "gradient" mean exactly the same thing in English: the angle of a line or surface to the horizontal at a particular point. Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 23:07
  • 1
    I can't count the number of times I've been frustrated by students writing 1.900 and having to guess if they really mean 1.9 or 1,900. I would add to this dates: 4/3 - is it April 3rd (English) or the 4th of March (most other languages)?
    – earthling
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:45
  • 1
    @earthling. Don't blame backward dates on English speakers: that's a purely American phenomenon.
    – TRiG
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 11:41

The German word for torque is Drehmoment, which is a composite of Dreh (turning) and Moment. Thus a very literal translation of Drehmoment would be turning momentum. This leads to confusion with the English angular momentum, which is Drehimpuls in German, but which one might easily accidentally translate as Drehmoment.

  • Dutch is exactly like German here.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 23:03

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