A Poisoned Gift

How giving came to mean something deadly

On a sunny September day in 2013, my co-workers and I took a sailing trip in Zushi, Japan. On top of the beautiful scenery, two memories of that day are still engraved in my mind. The first was the horrible sunburn I got on my legs and my rookie attempts at explaining to the pharmacist in Japanese that I needed a lotion. The second was my introduction to what “gift” means in Swedish.

The sign of the Das Gift Bar in Neukölln, Berlin False friends

My Swedish co-worker at the time made an interesting observation while holding a plastic bottle of water. The label was obviously in Japanese, but as is common in Japan, many product packaging display random English words in an attempt to sound hip. The bottle had the word gift on it. My co-worker laughed and remarked that, in Swedish, gift means poison. A strange thing to print on a bottle of water, indeed.

As I started to learn German, I discovered that Gift also means poison in Goethe’s language. It was time to look up its etymology. As is often the case, some false friends are not so false after all.

Originally, Gift in German had the meaning of present. It stems from a Proto-Germanic verb that means to give. This verb gave (pun intended) the English word gift. Through a semantic loan from the Latin dosis which in turn is borrowed from the Old Greek δόσις (a dose of medicine, a giving), Gift became a euphemism for poison, i.e., a dose of something given to a person.

German English Usage
das Gift poison In use
die Gift present, gift Outdated. Use Geschenk instead

Geschenk is the German word for present. It comes from the verb schenken: to give as a present, to gift. As many German words starting with Ge, it is neutral.

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