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That’s what False (Cognate) Friends are for

There are many pairs of words in English-Spanish that look and sound similar but have very different meanings, known as 'false cognates'

Spanish Pinpointed

Native English speakers more or less know 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.

A knowledge of Latin is helpful

The 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.

This causes mistakes 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.

Some examples of false cognates

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. Sane in Spanish is cuerdo—which implies “in his or her right mind”—and sanity is translated cordura, which can also mean prudence.

Sanatorio is a hospital or clinic, and sanitario is a (public) toilet or restroom.

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 heard. Hardly anyone uses the word componenda.

Asistir means to attend (e.g. a meeting or event), — less commonly it may mean ‘to witness’ — but it doesn’t mean ‘to assist.’  If you want to provide help or assistance you would use the word ayudar.

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

There are many of these pairs of words in English-Spanish, and lists of them can be found with an online search.

English-language influence on Spanish words

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 business world concepts which have their origin in English.

This increasing brush with the English-speaking world has led to more and more frequent use of the hitherto uncommon disrupción and disruptivo, although there is no such verb as “disrumpir,” according to the Academy, which notes the English influence of the former two words.

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 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.

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1 Comment

  1. Rebecca says

    You guys!!!! These Spanish lessons are fantastic! This is my first month subscribing to your newsletter (my husband and I have just begun thinking of possible retirement to Mexico), and so I have just stumbled upon these. I studied Spanish in college, but haven’t used my Spanish regularly in 20 years. It’s still there, but it’s rusty, and I am just loving these lessons. Thank you for the work you’re doing! It is appreciated!

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