Updated: May 17, 2021
Sometimes, words in Spanish that look familiar may not mean what you think they mean. Here are 10 examples to help you avoid making those rookie mistakes!
Cognates are words in one language that look similar to known words in another and share the same meaning. As an English speaker studying Spanish, which is a Romance language (as are French and Italian), you might notice many similarities that prove useful. For example, competición means competition, personal is the same word in both languages, secreto means secret, los Estados Unidos is the United States, and even cognado means cognate.
But what happens when a word looks like a cognate, but in reality isn't? This is known as a false cognate (cognado falso), or more commonly a false friend (amigo falso). One of the more well-known examples is the Spanish word, embarazada. While it looks like English's embarrassed, don't fall into it's trap by saying, "Estoy embarazada." You see, embarazada means pregnant. So if you are trying to say you're embarrassed, but say "Estoy embarazada", you'll either get some weird looks (especially if you're a guy) or a congratulations. Instead, you would want to say, "Estoy avergonzada."
10 Helpful Amigos Falsos
To help you out with these tricky false friends, here is a list of 10 to be on the lookout for:
Gracioso/a - This looks like gracious, right? But it really means silly or funny. For example: ¡Él es tan gracioso! He is so funny! To say gracious, you would want to use cortés (courteous), elegante or refinado/a (dignified), or even benévolo (benevolent), depending on what meaning of gracious you are aiming for.
La Ropa - In Spanish, this means clothing or clothes, not rope, which is la cuerda. For example: Necesito comprar más ropa para la fiesta mañana. I need to buy more clothes for the party tomorrow.
La Misericordia - If you are Catholic, this is a very common word when talking about Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. No, it doesn't mean misery (which is exactly what I thought it meant the first time I saw it!). It means mercy. For example: Jesus is a God of mercy. Jesús es un Dios de misericordia. To say misery, you would use la tristeza or la miseria.
El Alma - Spanish is a very expressive language, and the word alma is used a lot when talking about love or feelings. It means soul, but can also be translated as heart depending on the phrase. (Interesting side note: alma is feminine, but because Spanish nouns that start with a stressed "a" use masculine nouns - like agua - you would say el alma, but its adjectives will be feminine.) For example: Mi esposo es mi alma gemela. My husband is my soul mate. Notice how gemela is feminine, even though you say EL alma. :) Alms would be la limosna.
El Bigote - No, this is not the Spanish word for bigot. It means - wait for it! - mustache. To describe someone as a bigot, you would instead call them intolerante or fanático/a. (Although, please don't go around calling people bigots, in any langauge! :D) For example: ¡Ramón tiene un bigote impresionante! Ramón has an impressive mustache! Do you know anyone with an impressive mustache? Feel free to tell them that
El Teniente - If you are trying to talk about someone who is a tenant of a building, teniente is not the word you're looking for; you want arrendatario/a or inquilino/a. Teniente, or tenienta, means a lieutenant or a deputy. According to WordReference.com, it is also a Spanish colloquialism to say that someone is deaf as a post. For example: El teniente resultó herido en la batalla. The lieutenant was injured in the battle. Mi perro está teniente. My dog is deaf as a post.
Un Regalo - While it looks very similar to the English word regal, this word actually means gift. Another phrase from WordReference.com: ser un regalo para la vista, or to be a sight for sore eyes (literally, it means to be a gift for the sight). For example: Mi hermano me dió un regalo de chocolates. My brother gave me a gift of chocolates.
La Librería - This word took me awhile to get the hang of. It looks like the word for library, but if you go to a librería, you will have to pay for your books as it actually means bookstore. A library is la biblioteca. For example: Cada vez que voy a la librería, siempre tengo que comprar uno o dos libros. Whenever I go to the book store, I always have to buy one or two books. (This is a legitimate problem for me; especially at used bookstores!)
Un Éxito - Don't start looking for the exit just yet. :D This word in Spanish actually means success! (But if you want the exit, then look for la salida.) For example: ¡Su negocio fue un gran éxito! Her business was a huge success!
Una Decepción - in Spanish, this means disappointment. I'm not sure why, but this feels more appropriate for a disappointment rather than our own English word. ;) For example: La película fue una gran decepción. The movie was such a disappointment. If you want to talk about a deception, you would use the word el engaño.
If you want to learn even more False Friends, check out these articles from FluentU, Real Fast Spanish, and Lawless Spanish (they provide a HUGE list, alphabetized)! For a few resources in Spanish, try these lists by Babel and Verbling.
Remember, learning a language is a lifelong journey.
¡Aprovéchalo, Disfrútalo y Compártelo!
Cultural Tip: Colombia
Name: Republica de Colombia, named after Christopher Columbus.
Size: Looking at the map from the CIA World Fact Book, Columbia is about the size of the man in the middle of America (you know, Wisconsin is the hat, Iowa is the face, Louisiana is the foot, etc.?), if you stretched it out a bit.
Location: It is located at the top of the South American continent, above and to the west of Brazil.
Government Type: It is a presidential republic, meaning it's a representative democracy with a presidency separate from the legislative body.
Capital City: Bogotá
Religion: Based on a 2014 estimate, most of the country is Roman Catholic at 79%, then Protestant at 14%.
Official Language: Spanish
Currency: Colombian Peso (COP)
Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela used to all be one country called Gran Colombia, which gained independence from Spain on July 20, 1810. It then splintered in 1830 into Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, then Panama became its own country in 1903. The 1990s through the 2000s saw conflict between the government, paramilitaries and antigovernment insurgents. In 2006, the paramilitaries demobilized (also known as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC), and in 2016 the Colombian Government signed a final peace accord with the insurgents, the Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia (FARC). The peace agreement demobilized, disarmed and reincorporated the FARC members into society and created 3 new institutions - a truth commission, a coordination unit for finding those who disappeared during the conflict, and a Special Jurisdiction for Peace for overseeing conflict-related criminal justice.
© 2021 by Language Answers, LLC
Intro and Closing Music by Master_Service from Fiverr
"20 Surprising Spanish-English False Friends Everyone Falls For" by Lisa for FluentU
"15 Spanish False Friends about Emotion" by Real Fast Spanish
"Falsos amigos" by Lawless Spanish
"Lista de falsos amigos en inglés" by Adriana Jiménez for Babel on January 29, 2020
"Los 11 falsos amigos más comunes entre el inglés y el español" by Ana Sánchez for Verbling on November 25, 2015