There are many words in Spanish that sound very similar to English words. These are often referred to as cognates. For example:
concentrar means to concentrate
visitar means to visit
danzar means to dance
Many of us, when we don’t know the word, create a cognate by changing the ending of an English word to sound Spanish. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
That’s where “false friends” come in. In Spanish there are many words that appear similar to a word in English, but do not in fact mean the same thing. Sometimes they can mean very different things, so it helps to be aware of “false friends” to avoid additional awkward social mistakes. Then again, it can be quite funny!
Here we have compiled a list of 10 false friends in Spanish to be aware of:
1. embarazada ≠ embarrassed
The classic. It is so prevalent because we all at some point want to say we are “embarrassed” to speak Spanish. But don’t use the word embarazada to express that sentiment. Embarazada means pregnant, which has nothing to do with what you mean to say. If you want to express embarrassment, the correct word is avergonzada.
2. constipado ≠ constipated
The first time you hear the word you might feel like you’ve just been given a little TMI (too much information), but constipado actually refers to having a cold, a synonym of the Spanish word resfriado. If you really want to talk about your bowel movements (though not recommended) the word you want is estreñido.
3. éxito ≠ exit
Do not look for the “éxito” in the airport. You won’t find it. You will find la salida. Éxito actually means success in Spanish. You may often hear the phrase “un gran éxito” or “a great success”.
4. sensible ≠ sensible
It’s almost cruel because they are even spelled the same, but sensible does not mean someone who is sensible or reasonable. It means someone who is sensitive, as in reacting with emotion. If someone is sensible, we would say she was sensato or razonable.
5. delito ≠ delete
It looks perfect … I’ll just press the “delito” and erase what I wrote. But this false friend actually means something completely different. A delito is a crime, as in “él cometió (cognate) un delito (false friend)”. The word for delete in Spanish is borrar or suprimir. Perhaps you can remember that an attorney who deletes files is actually committing a crime.
6. asistir (a) ≠ to assist
If you say “Yo puedo asistir” you are not saying that you can help, you are saying that you can attend. And the verb asistir includes a prepositional a, as in “puedo asistir a la fiesta” or “I can attend the party”. If you want to talk about assisting someone, you would use the verb ayudar (to help).
7. molestar ≠ molest
When you first hear this word you may feel a bit shocked if you’re thinking it means the same in English. But molestar in Spanish means to bother. You will often hear it as a form of politeness as in “No quiero molestarte, pero tienes algunos minutos” meaning ” I don’t want to bother you, but do you have a few minutes”.
8. disgustar ≠ disgusted
Although it certainly looks like it means disgusted, disgustar actually means to get upset. This is an important distinction in context. If someone tells you he’s upset you with you vs he’s disgusted by you, you may react differently than if they are just upset. If you want to say disgusted, you would use the verb indignar, as in “estoy indignado” or “I am disgusted”.
9. libreria ≠ library
So close, but so far. La libreria has books, but they are books for buying, as in a bookstore. If you want to go to the library, you are looking for the biblioteca, where the books are free to rent and you can study.
10. actualmente ≠ actually
This one is very common as we mentioned before in our post on classic mistakes made by English speakers. Actualmente means “in today’s day” or “of the times“. If you actually want to say “actually”, the closest Spanish word would be “realmente“.
So while cognates are a great place to start to help you learn a language, use them with caution. You can see how confusing them with these “false friends” could lead to some serious confusion and/or mortification. Do you have any “false friends” you want to warn us about? Or do you have any stories of when “false friends” got you in trouble?? Share with us in the comments!
Re constipado/constipated — “bowl” movement is incorrect. Maybe it’s a typo. You mean “bowel” movement. “Bowl” movement is pretty hilarious — exactly like you said can happen when we try to apply what seems like a cognate and get it wrong. A bowl is an empty hollow piece of cookware.
Ha ha. Yes I mean “bowel” movement, as in what you do on the toilet. Thanks for the correction Jana.
Just discovered this site – will try it out as I teach English in Granada Spain and need to improve my English. I often draw attention to cognates and false friends – some of which you list above. This knowledge is actually useful for English and Spanish language learners so a good post to include. I also come across “career” when Spanish speakers mean ‘degree’ as carera is used in Spain for a degree and causes confusion with the English word ‘career’. I usually teach carera = degree and profesion = profession/career.
Thanks for sharing Chris! Yes, ‘carrera’ is a great example of a false friend in Spanish ;). What a great spot you chose to teach English. We loved Granada. We shot our videos for level A1+ there and there was so much to see … the alhambra, flamenco, the food, and the tea shops! Hope we can go back soon 🙂
Dansar is incorrect, you can say bailar o danzar!
Yes! Thanks for the catch Jose. Danzar is with a ‘z’, not an ‘s’. Updated.
A friend went into a farmacia in Sevilla, and asked for soap. They looked at her blankly, so she mimed out having a shower and washing with soap. They started backing away from her. She gave up and came out to tell us about her failure. I checked, and as I thought she had asked for ‘sopa’ not ‘jabon’. They must have thought ‘Those crazy Brits…!’