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That’s What False Friends Are For

Topics: Learning Spanish

Written by: Mexperience

Published: Sunday, March 6, 2011

Everyone more or less knows that if you’re struggling to find a word in Spanish, you can add an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ to the end of an English noun – as well as “idad” for words ending “ity” and “ología” for “ology” and “ismo” for “ism” – and have a 50% chance of coming up with something close enough that people will understand what you are getting at.

Of the remaining 50% chance, there’s roughly a 33% chance each that you will a) be misunderstood, b) say the opposite of what you mean, and c) make a complete fool of yourself.

This creative adaptation of word endings works better if you have a rough idea of which English words are Latin based, since both languages share those roots. Words with Greek origins will also usually work, since many are used for scientific names or terms.

Where this causes mistakes is with words that have a similar root or origin but have come to change their meaning in one or the other language. These words that look and sound similar but have different meanings are called false cognates – incorrectly, it turns out - or false friends.

There are many of these pairs of words in English-Spanish, and lists of them can be found online. To mention a few:

Sensible in Spanish means sensitive, or even touchy. Sensato is the word for sensible. Sano in Spanish means healthy or whole, or clean (as in jokes), but not sane. Sanatorio is a hospital or clinic, and sanitario is a (public) toilet or restroom. Sane in Spanish is cuerdo — which implies “in his or her right mind” and sanity is translated cordura, which can also mean prudence.

Compromiso means commitment, promise, or engagement (to be married or any other kind), and the word for compromise  is componenda, although in Mexico arreglo is commonly used. Hardly anyone uses the word componenda.

Sometimes the meaning of similar sounding words is the opposite or entirely different. Terso means smooth, not terse, and en absoluto or absolutamente means absolutely not! I absolutely agree would be estoy completamente de acuerdo.

The transliteration of English to Spanish can also produce words that don’t exist, and native Spanish speakers who know English are also guilty of this, particularly in the business world where many concepts have their origin in English.  Disruption has on occasion been rendered as disrupción, when interrupción is correct. The fashionable words, accountable and accountability, cause no end of problems for conference speakers, who frequently end up using the English term with apologies. Responsable and responsabilidad are perfectly good words, but the compound noun rendición de cuentas leads to speaker’s block when trying to convert that into an adjective.

The new online generation has no such qualms about cognates, false or otherwise, and happily takes computer and Internet  jargon from its original English and tags on the necessary Spanish endings, including conjugations. Uploadear, atachar,  taguear, tuitear, rebootear, etc. are among verbs in common use.

See Also: Learning Spanish