50+ Spanish-English false friends/cognates

One of the advantages of languages that are somewhat related is that they usually have a similar vocabulary, and believe it or not, this is the case with English and Spanish. English is a Germanic language, more precisely a West-Germanic language, and Spanish is a Romance language.

How are they related then? It’s all due to the French (Old Norman or Norman French actually) words the Normans took to England during the Norman Conquest of 1066. Lots of those words had Latin roots, which in turn is at the core of all the Romance languages, and thus the connection with the Spanish language.

But in spite of what I’ve just told you and as you might have already gathered based on the title of this article, there is also room for a lot of false friends and false cognates which we’re going to take a look at down below 🙂 .

Spanish-English false friends

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First off, you may wonder if a ‘false friend’ and a ‘false cognate’ is the same thing. It’s not. But it’s a bit complicated. What I’ve finally found is that:

False friends are words that are similar in their modern forms despite having different modern meanings. This is regardless of whether the words are etymologically connected.
False cognates are words that are similar in their modern forms despite having different etymologies. This is regardless of whether the modern meanings are similar.

However, in this link, where I found this information, you can see different examples of the combinations, true friends/true cognates, false friends/true cognates, false friends/false cognates and true friends/false cognates. Sounds like a mess, I know.

A non-exhaustive list of Spanish-English false friends and/or cognates

Bare in mind that here we’re talking about the most commonly used meaning of these words, as some of them may be used in different contexts. Also keep in mind that I’m writing this from the perspective of a Spaniard and that some of these words may be translated and used differently in Latin American countries.

Key: Pairs of words with the same meaning have the same color.

  • Librería: Not a library, but a bookstore or a bookcase. The correct term for ‘library‘ would be ‘biblioteca‘.
  • Excitado/a: In general, Spaniards will say they are ‘excitados’ when they’re aroused, not excited. The best translation for ‘excited‘ would be ‘emocionado/a‘ or ‘entusiasmado/a‘, although it obviously depends on the context.
  • Conductor: These people have nothing to do with music, their job is to drive because they are ‘drivers‘. The musical ones are called ‘director de orquesta‘.
  • Idioma: A synonym of ‘language‘, not a constructed expression or a dialect. An ‘idiom‘ would be in most cases a ‘modismo‘.
  • Disgustado/a: If someone looks sad and says he/she is ‘disgustado/a’, they’re saying they’re upset, not disgusted. A disgusted person would be ‘asqueado/a‘ in the sense of physical nausea or ‘indignado/a‘ if they feel repulsed because of something they’ve heard.
  • Realizar: ‘Realizar’ is a synonym of ‘to do‘, ‘to make‘ something or ‘to carry out‘ a task. It can even mean the same as ‘realize’ in the sense of fulfilling a dream, but it never means to ‘realize‘ as to become aware of something. The equivalent for that would be ‘darse cuenta‘.
  • Carpeta: People don’t step on these, they put things inside of them because they’re ‘folders‘, not ‘carpets’. The kind of carpet which covers the whole floor and can’t be moved is called ‘moqueta‘,  whereas rugs are called ‘alfombras‘.
  • Fagot: Wait a minute before you yell at me. This word is used to refer to a musical instrument, the bassoon, or the person who plays it, the bassoonist. I’ll let you find by yourself how to actually say what you thought this meant (in fact, most languages call this instrument like this, except for French and English).
  • Profesor/a: Just a teacher, regardless of where he/she works. To specify that they work at a university they’re called ‘profesor/a universitario/a‘ or perhaps ‘catedrático‘ if you’re talking about a professor with a higher academic rank.
  • Lectura: Talking about universities, ‘lectura’ has nothing to do with it, it just refers to the act of reading. A lecture would simply be a ‘clase‘ or perhaps a ‘conferencia‘.
  • Cafetería: Still in the university field, you might find ‘cafeterías’ in Spanish-speaking universities, but the word also has the broader meaning of ‘coffee shop‘ or ‘cafe‘.
  • Café: Most of the time you can’t go to a ‘café’, you drink it because it’s coffee. As mentioned above, the place is usually called ‘cafetería‘.
  • Carrera: This one has two main meanings, ‘race‘ and ‘university degree‘. However, your career will be referred to as ‘profesión‘ or ‘trayectoria profesional‘.
  • Nudo: If someone sees a ‘nudo’ they’re not seeing anyone naked, it’s just a knot. ‘Naked‘ would be translated as ‘desnudo‘.
  • Ropa: Feel like wearing ‘ropa’ today? You better do so, because it means ‘clothes‘. As for ‘rope‘, the translation would be ‘cuerda‘ or ‘soga‘.
  • Compás: Lost in the woods? One of these won’t help you much unless drawing circles on the ground were of any help. A compass is called ‘brújula‘.
  • Constipado/a: You may feel awkward if someone tells you they’re ‘constipado/a’. You should relax though, they’re just saying they have a cold. A constipated person is ‘estreñido/a‘.
  • Abogado/a: You certainly can’t eat those because cannibalism is not an acceptable thing to do. Those are ‘lawyers‘, but avocados are called ‘aguacates‘.
  • Sano/a: If someone says they’re ‘sano/a’ they’re not trying to reassure you about their mental state, they just mean they’re healthy. A sane person is called ‘cuerdo/a‘ (not to mistake with rope!), although if someone is ‘en su sano juicio‘ it means they’re sane 😆.
  • Escolar: Any kid can be a ‘escolar’ without being a genius because it is either a ‘school kid‘ or an adjective related to schools. A scholar is mainly a ‘investigador/a‘.
  • Colegio: Again in the school domain, that is exactly what ‘colegio’ means, ‘school‘. College is simply referred to as ‘universidad‘ or in some cases ‘facultad‘.
  • Largo: Similar but different. ‘Largo’ means long, and ‘large‘ would be translated as ‘grande‘, just as ‘big‘.
  • Fábrica: You technically do create things with it, but in a different way. A ‘fábrica’ is a factory, whereas ‘fabric‘ is translated as ‘tejido‘ or ‘tela‘.
  • Embarazada: Only women can be ’embarazadas’ because it means to be pregnant. To be embarrassed is ‘estar/sentirse avergonzado/a‘.
  • China: In Spanish it’s only used to talk about the country. The kind of china your little brother can break is called ‘porcelana‘.
  • Espada: These ones used to be knights’ best friends and not because they liked to dig a lot, but because they like to fight with swords. A spade is called ‘pala‘, although the ace of spades would be called ‘as de picas‘ (Thank you Motörhead for teaching me this :D)
  • Parcela: It only means a piece of land, a plot. You can never send it in Spanish because the word for that would be ‘paquete‘.
  • Preservativo: Some people may blush if you say this word. You won’t use it to talk about the food industry because it’s a synonym of ‘condom‘. A preservative would be called a ‘conservante‘. Spanish also has the word ‘condón‘, though.
  • Agenda: Nothing to do with secret plans or hidden intentions, an ‘agenda’ is just some kind of book with a calendar to write down your appointments.
  • Lentilla: Again you don’t eat this, you put it in your eyes to see better. It’s a contact lens. The ones you eat, lentils, are called ‘lentejas‘.
  • Tuna: More food related things, or not. ‘La tuna’ is a group of university students who plays music dressed up in a particular way.Atún‘ is the fish you’d call ‘tuna‘ in English (I’ve always found it funny because one is an anagram of the other).
  • Sensible/Sensato: A ‘sensible‘ person is a sensitive one. On the other hand, a sensible one would be described as ‘sensato/a‘. Looks like some evil creature did that on purpose, right?
  • Arena: If you tell a Spanish person you attended a concert in an arena, they may with a bit of luck think your concert took place on a bullring because for us arena means ‘sand‘. The correct word in that context would be ‘estadio‘, or if the concert took indeed place in a bullring then ‘plaza de toros‘.
  • Apología: Nothing to do with an apology. ‘Apología’ in Spanish only has the sense of defending an idea as in ‘apology for sb/sth‘. An apology is a ‘disculpa‘.
  • Argumento: An ‘argumento’ can have the same meaning in English as in ‘your argument was convincing’, but not at all when talking about ‘having an argument‘. That would be ‘una discusión‘. However, ‘argumento’ can also mean plot or story line.
  • Discutir: Related to the previous one, ‘discutir’ can have two meanings in Spanish. One is similar to English as in ‘let’s discuss the matter with your mother’, the other implies that an argument is taking place. ‘Tuve una discusión con mi hermano’ translates as ‘I had an argument with my brother’.
  • Decepción: You can be ‘decepcionado/a’ as a result of a deception, but it’s not the same thing. ‘Decepción’ means disappointment and ‘decepcionado/a‘ means disappointed. ‘Deception‘ can be translated as ‘engaño‘.
  • Actualmente: This one is more commonly mistaken by Spanish speakers. We tend to think it’s a synonym of ‘actually’, but not quite. ‘Actualmente’ translates as ‘at the moment‘, ‘nowadays‘, ‘currently‘, etc. However, the correct translation for ‘actually‘ would be ‘en realidad‘, ‘de verdad‘, although it can vary a bit depending on the context.
  • Tópico: A ‘tópico’ is a cliché. Not to mistake with ‘topic‘ which translates as ‘tema‘.
  • Recordar: You may usually record things to ‘recordar’ them. ‘Recordar’ means ‘to remember‘ or ‘to remind‘ you of something, whereas ‘to record‘ is usually translated as ‘grabar‘.
  • Resumir: Two for the price of one here. ‘Resumir’ has nothing to do with ‘to resume’ and ‘resumen’ has nothing to do with ‘résumé’. ‘Resumir’ is what you do to a text or an idea to make it shorter, ‘to sum up‘, ‘to summarize‘, ‘to shorten‘, and ‘resumen‘ is the result of that, ‘a summary‘, ‘a synopsis‘, ‘a recap‘. On the other hand, ‘to resume‘ translates as ‘reanudar‘, ‘continuar‘ or ‘seguir‘, whereas what Americans call ‘résumé‘ is usually referred at as ‘currículum‘ just as in the UK.
  • Demandar: This word has two senses. One of them is similar to the English one, ‘to demand sth’ although we can also translate that as ‘exigir’. However, ‘demandar’ also means ‘to sue‘.
  • Remover: Keeping on with verbs which look like something they’re not, ‘remover’ usually means to stir, as in ‘Stir the butter to make it melt’, but it can also mean ‘to revive‘ as in bringing up the past or ‘to reopen old wounds‘. ‘To remove‘ translates simply as ‘quitar‘, ‘sacar‘ or ‘eliminar‘.
  • Casualidad: ‘Una casualidad’ is something which happens by chance, a coincidence (we also have the word ‘coincidencia’), but a ‘casualty‘ is usually called ‘una baja/pérdida‘ (a loss) when referring to an armed conflict or ‘víctima‘ if it was an accident.
  • Parientes: Your ‘parientes’ are not your parents but your relatives. Your parents are called ‘padres‘, which literally means ‘fathers’.
  • Jubilado/a: Your relatives might be ‘jubilados’ which can mean they’re happy about it as in jubilant, but doesn’t necessarily imply so. ‘Un/a jubilado/a’ is a retired person.
  • Vacación: Although this one is mainly used in its plural form ‘vacaciones’, it means holidays. Spanish speakers may mistake it with the word ‘vacancy‘ which would actually be translated as ‘plaza libre‘ or ‘vacante‘.
  • Sauce: This is a funny one because it’s written exactly the same. ‘Sauce’ in Spanish is a type of tree, a willow, to be precise. The English ‘sauce‘ would be ‘salsa‘, like the dance.
  • Facilidad: Translates directly as ‘ease‘ in most cases or ‘ability‘ and ‘gift‘ if you’re talking about someone who doesn’t have a hard time picking up a certain skill. As for the English word, ‘facility‘ would be translated as ‘instalación‘ in most cases, which I guess makes sense because facilities can make things easier!
  • Blando: ‘Blando’ doesn’t refer to the taste of something but rather to its firmness. You’d translate it as ‘soft‘ if talking about a pillow, ‘tender‘ if talking about ‘meat’ or ‘indulgent/permissive‘ if talking about someone who’s not strict enough. On the other hand, ‘bland‘ would be ‘soso‘ if talking about food or ‘aburrido/tedioso‘ if talking about something boring.
  • Molestar: This one can be shocking if you’re not familiar with it. In Spanish it is perfectly fine to say ‘Mi hermano no para de molestarme’, which doesn’t mean your brother has been molesting you, but that he has been bothering/disturbing you. The English meaning can be conveyed in Spanish as ‘abusar/acosar sexualmente‘.
  • Soportar: ‘Soportar’ can mean the same as in English in the sense of holding up weight, but it doesn’t mean to be in favour of something or someone as in ‘I support you’ that would be ‘apoyar/respaldar‘, it doesn’t mean to cheer for a team, that would be ‘animar/ser hincha de‘ and it doesn’t mean to back up financially, that would be ‘financiar‘. It does however mean ‘to bear with someone‘, ‘to put up with someone‘ or ‘to stand someone‘, as in ‘No soporto a mi hermana’, ‘I can’t stand my sister’.
  • Billón: And last but not least, a famous one which applies mainly to Americans. ‘Un billón’ is a million times a million, 1012, whereas what Americans call ‘a billion‘ is actually a thousand millions, 109, ‘mil millones‘ to us.

Can you think of any other words I might have forgotten about? Leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list! 🙂

Disclaimer: I’m not a native English speaker, therefore you might find weird-sounding/looking sentences or downright wrong stuff.




Bea

Bea

Hi! My name is Bea and I love languages! That's why I blog about anything related to them that crosses my mind right here at Anything but Language. Hope you enjoy it!
Bea
  • Pregunta. (This one kind of goes along with embarazada.)

    • Bea

      You mean ‘pregunta’ and ‘pregnant’?

    • Nicholas

      Here’s one: Question vs Cuestión.

      • Bea

        That’s a bit of a tricky one because it can be a false friend, but it can also mean the same thing depending on the context. Thanks anyway!

  • Nicholas

    I think the “correct” cognate for ‘abogado’ is ‘advocate’, although they’re still not quite the same!

    • Bea

      Could be, although I preferred ‘avocado’ since both that one and ‘abogado’ are nouns, whereas ‘advocate’ is a verb. However, the equivalent to that in Spanish, ‘abogar’, actually comes from ‘abogado’ so it’s not such such a false friend after all!

      • Nicholas

        Advocate is a noun too! It’s just someone who advocates for someone else.. so not quite a lawyer, but a similar idea. ☺

        • Bea

          Oh! I had missed that part, you’re absolutely right!