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The closest I can find is 'cognate' but that term is used for words that have similar etymology and phonetic characteristics but not necessarily the same or similar meaning in different languages.

The reason I said 'can have' in my question is because words in different languages can share a meaning but not all possible meanings. Each word in a language has a sort of meaning cloud which can overlap with a particular meaning of a word in another language, while other meanings are not shared between them.

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    Can you show some examples, please? I think, this would help understand and answer the question. Dec 16, 2017 at 12:25
  • Any word that has a literal translation in another language is what I'm asking about. Perhaps I was being too specific in noting that while a word translates well with one meaning, the words can still have different, unshared meanings as well. I think this is pretty common, even with cognates. Words get used differently in different cultures and their meaning change. Dec 16, 2017 at 13:17
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    I'd stick with cognates.
    – TheTobruk
    Dec 16, 2017 at 15:25
  • Maybe related: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/22629/14731 Dec 19, 2017 at 12:51

2 Answers 2

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The term you are looking for (depending on etymological link) is cognate, or false cognate:

False cognates are pairs of words that seem to be cognates because of similar sounds and meaning, but have different etymologies;

A famous example is the Mbabaram (extinct Australian Aboriginal language) word for dog, dog.

Some further examples are listed in the above Wikipedia page, e.g.:

  • English cut; Hindi काट (kaṭ) "cutting"
  • English ache; Ancient Greek ἄχος (ákhos) "pain, distress"
  • English lake; French lac
  • English island; Spanish isla
  • English much; Spanish mucho
  • Spanish usted; Arabic أستاذ (ʾustāḏ) "formal pronoun; teacher"
  • Japanese 見る (miru); Spanish mirar "to watch"
  • Japanese 秘伝 (hiden); English hidden
  • Japanese 絵文字 (emoji); English emoticon
  • Japanese ありがとう (arigatō); Portuguese (obrigado) "thank you"

Additionally, there is the term false friend:

False friends are words in two languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.

Which would cover cognates and false cognates which differ in (at least one of) their meanings.

Cognate false friends:

  • English actual; Spanish actual "current"
  • English preservative; Spanish preservativo "condom"
  • English ice; Japanese アイス (aisu) "ice-cream"

Non-cognate false friends:

  • English afraid; Russian ефрейтор (yefreitor) "corporal"
  • Spanish afamada "famous"; Catalan afamada "hungry*

An amusing example is 手紙 (composed of the characters 手 - hand, and 紙 - paper) which in Japanese means tegami "written message" but in Chinese means shǒuzhǐ "toilet paper".

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  • tegami and shǒuzhǐ are not false friends, since they sound nothing alike (and they're not cognates, either). They merely happen to be represented in writing by the same characters; this is a coincidence of writing, not of language. It's an artifact of a complex writing system that packs Chinese loan-morphemes and their conventional native translations into the same visual sign. Feb 25, 2018 at 7:58
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    @boiko "False friends are words in two languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning."
    – iacobo
    Feb 25, 2018 at 11:11
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    Except the term "false friend" isn't limited to spoken language; it can also apply to written languages. A language is more than its spoken form.
    – Darkgamma
    Feb 26, 2018 at 1:30
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    For completeness and clarity, your examples of cognate false friends could include some that are not loans but direct inheritances. Feb 26, 2018 at 8:57
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    @AdamBittlingmayer have done so.
    – iacobo
    Jul 6, 2020 at 12:24
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Besides cognates, there are also chance coincidences (say, Maya vuh and German Buch "book") when clearly unrelated words have the same sound and meaning in different languages.

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  • How interesting is some supposed coincidences really stem from some historical transmission of the word. The Australian aborigine word for ""dog" mentioned above being "dog" of course certainly could be a coincidence but being that it is no doubt an ancient word, it could have been preserved for thousands of years from some protolanguage. I always thought the word for "hand" or "finger" should be similar in many apparently unrelated languages (but i do not think so); what is true is that in almost all languages the word for "one" is a single syllable and both "yes" and "no" are short words.
    – releseabe
    Apr 6 at 4:59

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