MED Magazine - Issue 19 - May 2004

Hungarian or Hunglish?
Borrowings and false friends between Hungarian and English

by Adrian Tennant & Ágnes Tennant


On first seeing or hearing Hungarian one might believe that there wouldn't be a problem with regard to false friends. One would also think that the 'borrowing' of words between the two languages would be unusual. After all, the roots of the languages couldn't really be much further apart. English, of course, belongs to the Indo-European family of languages while Hungarian belongs to a relatively small family grouping called Finno-Ugric (or Finno-Ugrian), which also includes Finnish and Estonian. The total number of speakers of Finno-Ugric languages is 24 million with the largest proportion, 13 million, being Hungarian speakers.

In this article we will start by looking at words that English has borrowed from Hungarian. Then we will look at words that Hungarian has borrowed from English. This section will be sub-divided into four categories: words where there is an equivalent but where the English is now preferred; words where the Hungarian has all but disappeared; words where the English is used to express one meaning while the Hungarian is used with another meaning; and words for which there has never been a Hungarian equivalent. Finally, we will look at some false friends.

Words borrowed from Hungarian

People are well aware that English has 'borrowed' many words from languages such as Norse, Latin, French, German, etc but what about less prominent European languages such as Hungarian?

The number of words that English has borrowed from Hungarian is quite small. A couple of obvious examples are goulash (gulyás) and paprika (paprika). These borrowings are not really surprising as it is quite usual for items of food to retain their original name. Often however, over time, the words will become anglicised both in terms of spelling and pronunciation. A couple of examples where the spelling has changed include hussar (huszár) and sabre (szablya). Another, more well-known, example of a word borrowed from Hungarian is coach. It comes from Hungarian kocsi (meaning car; literally meaning 'from Kocs'), which originates from Kocs, a village in north-west Hungary, where in the Middle Ages mail coaches were built. A common loan word used in English on an almost daily basis is the word biro. Like many products the name derives from the name of the inventor, in this case László Bíró.

Words borrowed from English

Hungarian, like most other languages, has started to borrow at an accelerated rate over the last few decades. Some English words are now used even though there is a Hungarian word that could be used. Here are a few examples:

word now used original word
mobil (telefon) rádiótelefon
monitor (for a computer) képerny
komputer számítógép
internet világháló

In other cases the original Hungarian word has all but disappeared, a fate likely to befall the words above. Some examples of words where the Hungarian word is just a distant memory are:

word now used meaning in English
televízió TV
flopi a computer disk, floppy disk
szponzor/szponzorál a sponsor/to sponsor
szuper super
imidzs image
telefon telephone

One interesting thing to note here is the way in which the spelling of the words has altered, resulting in a sort of Hungarianisation of the word.

In some cases certain meanings of words have been borrowed but not all. So a Hungarian would use the word sztár (star) to talk about a famous person such as a pop star but not for a star in the night sky (for which the word csillag would be used). Of course, one reason for this might be that the modern sense of star as a famous person is fairly recent in English with the first recording of this meaning being noted in the early 19th century.

Or words that have a broader meaning such as média, which is used to talk about all forms of media where the Hungarian 'equivalent' sajtó only refers to the written media. Or kollekció (although there is a Hungarian word for this - gyjtemény - the two words are used in different collocations, e.g. szi divatkollekció (autumn fashion collection) but bélyeggyjtemény (stamp collection).

Then there are the words where there has never been one in Hungarian. Some examples of these are:

szupermarket - supermarket
szoftver/hardver - software/hardware
gól - a goal (in football)
szolárium - solarium
széf - a safe (used for storing money or items of value)

False friends

So what about false friends? There are well over a hundred false friends. Some of these could be seen as 'unreliable' in that the difference in meaning is either slight or additional meanings exist in one language but not the other. For example:

Hungarian word and meaning English word
novella - short story novel
keksz - biscuits cakes

Others, although quite different, would probably be regarded as unimportant because they are words that are not frequently used. Words that fall into this category might be:

Hungarian word and meaning English word
szmoking - dinner jacket smoking
cylinder - top hat cylinder

Finally, there are some words which may cause considerable problems if confused:

Hungarian word and meaning English word
akció - special offer (on sale) action
aktuális - topical, timely actual
konzerv - tinned food conserve
kollégium - hall of residence college
farmer - jeans farmer
gimnázium - grammar school gymnasium
hobbi (kert) - allotment hobby
kanapé - sofa canapé
konkrét - factual concrete
masszív - solid massive
prémium - bonus premium
recept - recipe, prescription receipt
saláta - lettuce salad
szimpatikus - nice sympathetic

Sometimes the words have the same etymology, for example the word may have come from Latin. Over the course of time the Hungarian word has taken on a particular meaning while its English counterpart has acquired a (slightly) different one. So for example the word agitál in Hungarian means 'to persuade or campaign' and is often linked to politics. However, in English agitate(d) is often used to talk about a state or feeling of worry although it is also used in the sense of political unrest. Both the Hungarian and English descend from the Latin agitãre meaning 'to move to and fro'.

Another example would be the Hungarian word márka meaning a brand or particular make. Although the word mark in English has a similar meaning it is more commonly used to talk about a symbol or sign (for example, a mark in the ground, a mark on a page), or to talk about a level (for example, a score in an exam, the halfway mark). Again, both the English and Hungarian words have their origins in Latin, from the word marcus or marca pertaining to a marking on a piece of metal indicating that it is a coin.


Earlier we mentioned the fact that the rate and number of words being borrowed into Hungarian from English has increased rapidly over the past decade or so. One interesting phenomenon is that these words have been absorbed into Hungarian with their concepts intact. For example:

biznisz - business
szörföl - surf(ing) (on the Internet or as the watersport)

This increased borrowing is particularly noticeable in areas such as business, computing and technology.

Another interesting feature of contemporary borrowing is the way in which an English word has been grafted onto a Hungarian word or concept to create a hybrid. A few examples would be:

boxeralsó — meaning boxer shorts. Here Hungarian has borrowed the 'boxer' part of the compound but kept part of the Hungarian from alsónadrág meaning underpants

baconszalonna — used to describe lean bacon. The word szalonna means bacon, so a literal translation of this word would be bacon bacon

egérpad egér means mouse in Hungarian. So here Hungarian has taken pad from English and grafted it onto the Hungarian word to create a new word for a mouse mat (or mouse pad in American English) used with a PC. Interestingly, the word pad also exists in Hungarian, meaning bench.

Staying abreast of these changes will keep linguists, lexicographers, language learners and language teachers extremely busy.

Further reading

Ayto, J. Dictionary of Word Origins: Histories of More Than 8,000 English-Language Words (Arcade Books, 1990)

, Á. 'Használjunk minél több idegen szót!' (Magyar Narancs, 2 August 2001)

, Á. 'Mi az angol' (Magyar Narancs, 14 November 2002)

You can find a comprehensive list of Hungarian-English false congnates compiled by Péter Lázár on this website:

For a list of words borrowed by English from different languages, see:

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