Falsos amigos

False friends between the Spanish and English languages


Getting your words wrong is part and parcel of learning a foreign language. To do so can be embarrassing. There is a Spanish word “embarazada”, but guess what: it does not mean what it sounds like. It means “pregnant”!

“How embarrassing” in Spanish is “Qué vergüenza”


There are not really any short-cuts to learning a language. Like almost any skill that you wish to acquire, the only way to make progress and get ‘good’ is by spending plenty of time practising.

The closest thing I can think of to a short-cut to learning Spanish would be the recognition of, and confidence to use, the many thousands of cognate words. These are words that are practically the same in our respective languages, in that they have the same etymology and similar meanings.

Unfortunately, there are some spanners in the works. Combinations such as decepción and "deception" are false cognates — known also as "false friends" or falsos amigos — pairs of words that look like they should mean the same thing, but don't. They can be confusing, and if you plump for one of them in conversation, you're likely to be misunderstood.

The list below shows some of the most common false friends:

  • Actual: How would you actually define the English word ‘actual’ or ‘actually’? Not easy in English, but the Spanish word means current, at the present time, and therefore actualmente = currently. Don’t use it in place of the English ‘actually’.

So a story currently in the news might be referred to as un tema actual. A further complication is that if you wish to say something is actual (as opposed to imaginary), you can use real, which also can mean "royal" or less ambiguously: verdadero (true).


  • Asistir: Means to attend or to be present at an event.

Asistí al concierto anoche = I went to the concert last night.

So what is the word for ‘assist’? I hear you ask. Ayudar = to help.


  • Campo: This word looks like it should have something to do with camping, which it does in a way. As do mushrooms and campaigns and even Champagne, but that’s a tangent for a different chapter. Campo means simply a field or the countryside.

If you're looking for words to do with camping, you'll probably need a word for campsite, which can be campamento or camping.


  • Carpeta: This is not a soft covering for the floor. The word for carpet is ‘moqueta’ or ‘alfombra’, although this is more of a rug. ‘Carpeta’ can be a type of table cloth, but more commonly, it means a file / folder, including on a computer, or a briefcase.


  • Compromiso: An English compromise generally gives a sense of having had to give some ground, in order to reach an agreement. The Spanish meaning is rather more positive, meaning a promise, obligation, or commitment. Out of context it is difficult to find a single noun to translate ‘compromise’ with the accompanying nuances, although there is a verb transigir, which conveys the sense of yielding to someone or something, or tolerating another person.


  • Constipación: This is one of the words that means a cold. In all of these examples, there is the potential for the error to be made by either the English or the Spanish speaker. In this particular example it is potentially more embarrassing for the Spaniard. If you really want to know the Spanish word for constipation, or rather the adjective, constipated: estreñido.


  • Corresponder: Yes, this verb does mean to correspond, but only in the sense of matching. If you're talking about exchanging communication with someone, use escribir con or mantener correspondencia.

  • Decepción: Means disappointment. As with a lot of these nouns, it is possible to make a verb out of it: ‘decepcionar’. To deceive someone, by the way, is engañar a alguién. Carrying on the pattern of finding other members of word families, we can make an adjective from this verb: something deceptive is engañoso.


  • Desgracia: The cognate word in English sounds quite serious, but in Spanish, it is not at all disgraceful; just a mistake or misfortune. To convey a sense of shame, use una vergüenza or una deshonra. ‘Por desgracia’ is one of the ways of saying ‘unfortunately’.


  • Disgusto: There are many negating prefixes which English and Spanish share, and this word is simply the negative equivalent of ‘gusto’, which means ‘like’ or ‘pleasure’, so this word refers to displeasure or even misfortune. If you need to transmit a sense of disgust, use ‘asco’ or ‘repugnancia’.


  • Embarazada: This might well be the first on the list of false friends that people learn – with good reason. When intending to state that you feel embarrassed, your emotion might be amplified if you mistakenly say that you are pregnant, which is what it means. We have just seen this, but as a reminder, to feel embarrassed is tener vergüenza or se siente avergonzado. ¡Qué vergüenza! is the exclamation, which is a useful form to remember as it requires no verb.


  • En absoluto: You would be forgiven for thinking that this phrase might have a positive meaning, but the oppostive is true: it means not at all or absolutely not. To say "absolutely," use the friends which are not false: totalmente or completamente.


  • Éxito: There are so many cognate words in Spanish/English that it is always a guess, but be prepared for a falsehood. The English exit translates as ‘salida’. ‘Éxito’ is a word, but the only thing that is being left behind is mediocrity, meaning, as it does, a hit or a success.


  • Fábrica: This is not the word for fabric, cloth. That would be ‘tela’, or ‘tejido’. ‘Una fábrica’ is where those items might be made however, as it means factory.


  • Ganga: This is a useful word, which has nothing to do with gangs and everything to do with paying less than you might have expected for something: ‘una ganga’ is a bargain.



  • Introducir: This word only just made it onto the list, as it can mean ‘to introduce’, but only in the sense of putting something into effect.

Van a introducir una nueva ley acerca del uso de móviles cuando se conduce

= They’re going to bring in a new law about using mobiles while driving

If you want to introduce someone however, you use presentar.

Os presento mi novia = Let me introduce my girlfriend to you


  • Molestar: This is quite a common verb in Spanish and has a much less serious meaning than the English equivalent. Rather, it means to bother or to annoy.

¡Me molestan los mosquitos!


  • Once: If you are a native speaker of English you will have undoubtedly read this in your mind as the English word meaning one time.

It is in fact a Spanish word, pronounced “on-theh” and means eleven.

It is also a very well-known acronym for the Spanish charity that supports blind people: Organización Nacional De Ciegos De España. This organisation is best known in Spain for the (very many) lottery tickets that they sell.


  • Pretender: Again, a reminder to read this word Spanish-style, stressing the final syllable, as is always the case with infinitive verbs. The Spanish verb has nothing to do with faking it, but means to try, or to intend. To say ‘pretend’, you would need fingir or simular.


  • Rapista: This is the third most common word for a barber. Peluquero would be the solid first choice, followed by the more familiar-looking barbero is more common. The word in questions comes from the verb rapar, to cut close or to shave. I included it on this list so that you wouldn’t be alarmed if, when reading an article about a perfectly innocent hairdresser, you made an unfortunate assumption. A sexual attacker is a violador.


  • Realizar: the secondary meaning of the English word to realise is what this Spanish verb means: to make something (become) real. The far more common usage of ‘becoming aware that something is true’ would normally be translated with darse cuenta, although there are several other verbs depending on the context.


  • Recordar: This verb does not mean to record, but to remember, recall or remind. It is a radical-changing (or stem-changing verb) which means that the main vowel sound changes in the present tense conjugations:

No me recuerdo = I don’t remember

The correct verb to use if you want to talk about recording something depends on what you're recording. Possibilities include anotar or tomar nota for writing something down, or grabar for making an audio or video recording.


  • Ropa: This word which, like gente (people) is an uncountable noun: it is a singular word which refers to an implied plural. It means clothing, not rope. Rope is cuerda or soga.


  • Sano: Many non-Spaniards know that Salud is the normal exclamation to accompany the clinking of drinks glasses. It means health. From this we get the adjective saludable which means physically healthy, but so does sano. Slightly different connotations and usage, but very similar. Someone who is sane is en su juicio: "in her/his right mind."


  • Sensible: This adjective means sensitive (for a person or an object) or capable of feeling. The less positive meaning of sensitive (as in easily offended) would be rendered by susceptible, or delicado, if referring to a sensitive topic or issue. A sensible person or idea can be translated with sensato or razonable.


  • Sopa = Soup. Soap is jabón.


  • Tuna: If you were to order this at a restaurant and you'd be given a kind of cactus! The tuna fish is an anagram of our word: atún.



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