False Friends Explained – “irritieren vs. irritate”

irritating-irritierend-falsHello everyone,

and welcome to another eposide of False Friends Explained. In these posts we look at a pair of false friends and see why they are false, what to use instead and of course … who screwed up, English or German.
Today we’ll look at

irritieren vs irritate

 

And this pair is actually dangerous. Because it can lead to a serious misunderstanding, particularly on the English speaking side. Here’s an example…

German speaker: “Haha, those new glasses of yours still irritate me.”
English speaker: “Oh.. uhm… well, I’m sorry, I guess.  I can’t really do anything about it.”
German speaker: Hahaha… no need to be sorry. It’s just … my girlfriend has the exact same ones and that’s super irritating.

At this point the English speaker is most like thinking something along the lines of “What a passive aggressive idiot.” And the German speaker has no idea that he just left a super bad impression. So… what went wrong here?

Well, the English verb irritate is about making angry, annoyThe German irritieren on the other hand is super harmless and inoffensive. It means to make slightly confused…. oh, and I really have to disagree with what some dictionaries say. Dict.cc for instance suggests  to vex, to jar, to unsettle as translations. But those sound too strong, too serious. In daily life irritieren is used for for small, rather temporary confusions.

Germans use the word quite a bit. It has been getting more and more popular over the last decades and today, it’s almost as common as verwirren, the standard translation for to confuse.

 

verwirren-ngram

(Google ngram of verwirren and irritierenoh, did you notice  the spike for  the verwirren-family (red line) around 1946? I love n-Grams for these little tell tales) 

Is there a difference to verwirren? Well, irritieren sounds a bit more momentary to me. A fly passing  by your screen once can irritieren you, but not really verwirren. And if the fly starts talking to you, you’ll be more than just irritiert.

In the first example, irritieren wouldn’t be strong enough, in the second one using verwirren would be over the top. Oh and in the right context, irritieren can express annoyance, though it’s but a hint.
Which brings us right to the Whodunnit? Who messed up the meaning, German or English.
Well… this time it’s German.
The origin of irritieren and irritate is the Latin word irritare and that meant to excite, to stimulate, to incite. These meanings are not too far from the idea of annoy, to upset, and both, German and English, imported the verb with this meaning.
The problem was that there was a Germanic verb that looked quite similar… irren (to err). And that really confused the German speakers and so the idea of  false, not knowing the way became the vague focus irritieren  while the notion of anger, nuisance faded and tadah… a new pair of false friends was born. Well, okay… sometimes the two versions meet up and have a beer together.

But in daily conversation, irritieren and irritate have very little to do with each other and the misunderstanding is so subtle yet serious that this pair is really worth learning consciously.
As a German native speaker you really should be aware that using irritated can easily end up offensive.
And as an English native speakers you should know that you can chill out if you hear irritiert (or  irritated with a German accent) – the person is usually NOT annoyed in any way, just a bit confused. Oh and if you are irritated and you want to express it in German… use something with ärgern or sauer.

And I think that’s it for today. As always if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

 

** translations **

irritieren – (momentarily) confuse, disturb concentration
irritiert – confused
irritierend – confusing

irritate – ärgern, sauer machen, reizen (for skin and organs)
irritated – sauer, verärgert, genervt
irritating – ärgerlich, nervig, reizend (for fabric or chemicals)