In linguistics there is a concept called “false friends.” Meant are similar words in different languages that none the less mean something rather different from each other. Wikipedia gives these examples: “the English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada (which means ‘pregnant’), the word parents and the Portuguese parentes (which means ‘relatives’), or the word sensible, which means ‘reasonable’ in English, but ‘sensitive’ in French, German and Spanish.” Sometimes choosing a false friend when speaking a second language can be funny.
For instance, the romantic term mist in English means “horse” or “cow dung” in German, or even more to the point, our word gift ends up meaning “poison.” So, auf Deutsch, if you give [a] gift to someone, you might be trying to do them in. Go figure! When learning another language, you need plenty of notes to self to make sure you’re not leaning on a false friend.
Things are similar in everyday life. We need to have a few friends whom we can really trust. These are the individuals with whom we can share our deepest concerns and most privileged information. Woe to us if we entrust these kinds of things to a false friend! The outcome may not be laughter or even miscommunication.
Wisdom, the English term, derives from the Latin visio, from which we get our word “vision” and its derivatives like “television” and “visionary,” and the Anglo-Saxon verb deman (past participle, dom), from which our modern English “deem” and “doom” derive repectively. Thus, wisdom really means our capacity (if we have and use it) to make decisions based on a true vision of the consequences of what we decide. Wisdom would keep more individuals and businesses from going bankrupt and decrease the number of divorces in the world. And it would also give us the sensitivity to detect whether a given person could become a true, trustworthy friend. So, in this regard, may we all cultivate wisdom in our lives in order to choose our friends well and, in general, to make life decisions that, as the late Dr. Jonas Salk put it, prove positive to ourselves, others, and the greatest possible context, the world at large or the universe. Amen.
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