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‘Amigos falsos’: When using your Spanish be careful not to embarrass yourself

Chatty Anglophones learning Spanish often make the acquaintance of amigos falsos, false cognates or words that sound the same but have different meanings. In addition to near-miss translation errors, the Pan-American Highway is littered with instances where the same Spanish words means different things in different countries.

Don’t worry. “Amigos falsos” can be a source of great amusement to the patient people trying to understand what you are saying. At least you’re trying, right?

 Gringos may be sensible, but this does not mean they are sensitive which is the Spanish translation. Exitado may seem to signify like an abundance of enthusiasm, but it’s mild slang for horny. Speaking of which, if you are feeling too warm, don’t say Estoy calienté unless you’re very confident the attraction is mutual.

A bit more obscure but equally important are facts like the common verb coger (to take) is perfectly fine in Spain or Ecuador but translates to the F-word in Mexico. I learned this in Guadalajara the hard way by asking directions to the bus stop with ¿Dónde puedo coger el bus? and being told, “Nowhere.” Say “tomar” instead, it’s legal everywhere. (For reasons I can’t explain, the verb “escoger,” (to choose), is perfectly fine in Mexico even though it looks and sounds suspiciously close to the F-verb.)

Funny but she doesn’t look embarrassed.

“Preserves” are not the same as preservativos. One is good on bread, the other in bed. Unless you want to get slapped over your continental breakfast, use honey or ask for mermelada instead.

It is very embarrassing to misuse the Spanish word embarazada which means pregnant. I once tried to complain that my boss shamed me by saying Mi jefé me ha embarazado, but this just triggered concerned stares and a quick anatomy lesson from my coworkers. Needless-to-say, my mistake was very embarazoso (embarrassing).

Tripping over one’s tongue is unavoidable. I got another anatomy lesson when, thinking I was asking for ear plugs (tapones de orejas), I requested for “tampones de ovejas” (goat tampons) instead. I didn’t understand why the pharmacist suggested I see a veterinarian. Speaking of pharmacies, constipado  can be the Spanish word to describe a stuffed nose, not a condition that requires laxativos.

More subtle, but equally important is how much accents and pronunciation matter. That silent “h” can raise hell. Make sure you articulate the vowel, or you might get orina (urine) if you really wanted harina (flour).

Compromise in English is what follows a negotiation where both parties have conceded something. Compromiso in Spanish simply means commitment, so don’t mention this until negotiations are over.

The fact that Spanish nouns have gender makes no sense to English speakers. Why is a table (la mesa) feminine and a wall (el muro) masculine? An obscure, but useful trick to impress amigos and terrify enemigos is that any noun originating from Greek (e.g. many words that end in “-ma” like theme/tema, scheme/scema, problema, trauma, etc.) will be masculine. Equally impressive is that almost any noun that ends in “-ion” (e.g. revolution, constitution, investigation) will translate directly and is likely to be of the feminine gender.

There appears to be no rhyme or reason for these gender rules so, when in doubt, just guess. In Spanish, you have a 50-percent chance of being correct with is better than your odds in German where there are three possibilities. Spanish is forgiving, but German errors can provoke social and economic consequences such as my lifelong grammar crime boycott of the red A-framed North American fast food joint called, “Der Wienerschnitzel.” Insisting it should have been called “Das Wienerschnitzel,” my German dad never took us there. I understand why American sausage mongers thought a hot dog might be male gendered, but they should have remained neutral though it probably wasn’t their wurst mistake ever.

Speaking of mistaken articles, I hope you enjoyed this one. Feel free to share your embarrassing “amigos falsos” in the comment section.

R.S. Gompertz is a native of Southern California who currently lives and writes in Seattle. He recently completed a tour of Mexico and South America during which he spent several weeks in Cuenca. His most recent book, “Life’s Big Zoo,” is available on Amazon. For more information about his life, work and travels, click here.

38 thoughts on “‘Amigos falsos’: When using your Spanish be careful not to embarrass yourself

  1. Pretty funny. I am learning Spanish and have learned pronunciation is everything, its key. I am very lucky my daughter is fluent, has taught Spanish for years, and is teaching me gratis. She correct my pronunciation and grammer every chance she gets. I wish I had started 5 years ago but I convinced myself I was to old (or dumb), big mistake. I back it up with Duolingo, Complete Spanish, the Language Transfer Method (audio and free and good) , and practice with my Cuencano family who wants to learn English as much as I want to learn espanol

    If I may add this thought for anyone on the fence about learning Spanish, I say go for it. Teaching methods are way different then when you were in 8th grade or whatever sitting at some desk with the most boring teacher facing you knowing you are there only because you have to be. My teacher was actually a good guy and after getting a C, D, F, F, F one year, he offered to pass me if I did not come back. We both laughed as I accepted that. Today, with the right attitude, you can actually have fun learning a new language.

    1. Hey! Watch out,you. Jeane Porges, my 7th grade Spanish teacher, Fred Leach, my 8th grade teacher, and Adriene Danzig my teacher in 9th, 10th and 11th grade were super. In college, my profs were also great, and that was in the 60’s and 70’s.

      But good on you for your attitude. Far too many expats that I come in contact with use any one of the common rationalizations for not learning to speak Spanish. I used to know a guy in Guayaquil that bragged that he had been here 19 years and hadn’t learned a word of Spanish. What an awful existence.

    2. I had the same experience with high school German. On the last day, the teacher said “Burt, stay after class.”

      Teacher: Are you planning on taking German 2 next year?

      Me: No, I only need one year of foreign language for the college prep program.

      Teacher. OK, I’ll pass you then…

      And yes, he was serious. I had straight-A grades in HS, but was flunking German. Knowing my overall grades, and that I had tried — but failed miserably — at German, he gave me a “B+” just to avoid ruining my GPA too much, as long as I promised not to take German 2…

      1. I had a situation like that, too. My first bachelors degree was in Spanish and one of the required courses was History of the Spanish Language. I hated that class with a passion, as we would often discuss the origin and derivation of a single world for an entire class period. I earned a D, but you couldn’t get less than a B in any required course in your major and dear old Edgar Knowlton gave me a B just so I could graduate.

        I actually have many such stories like that as I spent 11 years in school.

    3. Funny. We all have our bugaboos. For me, it was calculus….

      I swear it’s possible to get PTSD from tha!

      1. Me too Renee. Languages are a struggle for me. I had to sweat hard to learn the first two, but then others in their language families become much easier. (English is west Germanic and French is a romance language and I can’t think of anything similar between the two aside from words they snitch from each other.). For example, we could read Spanish on arrival, only the pronunciation of the words is different. But lunes, martes, mercoles etc…is a LOT easier to decipher from lundi, mardi, mercredi than from Monday Tuesday, Wednesday… which bear NO similarity.
        I am very jealous of my older brother. He picks up other languages and accents like other people adapt to currency conversions. I tell him he is boring in seven languages and counting. 😉

  2. Instead of telling someone to bring a pina to the party. I told him to bring his male body part. He happened to be the police chief. Oops!!

      1. Yes he has a sense of humor but it did not help that he told every police officer in town what I had said. Did not say a word in Spanish for days in fear of saying something wrong. Not to mention when I would see a police officer, I would turn on the nearest corner to avoid them!!

  3. Great article, thanks for sharing.
    My mistake in a taxi cab of all places:
    I was asked how are you ?
    I replied estoy caliente

  4. I enjoyed this article very much! A couple of examples I can add are the word “pico” which is perfectly acceptable in Spain as in “son las 3:00 y pico” however when used in Chile, I was told that’s a word you would see as graffiti on the wall (profanity). Similarly when I said something using the word recoger (as in recogerme del aeropuerto), again someone who had spent time in Spain explained on my behalf it’s commonly used in Spain. I can think of a few other words that could easily be misused by gringos: hombre/hambre/hombro (man/hunger/shoulder); there are many more that I can’t think of al momento.
    Jane H.

  5. Also be careful with Tercero y Trasero.
    As you know both have a huge difference jajaja
    One time, I heard a British Friend who was telling the Director at the University of Cuenca, that he has some problems with his TRASERO, obviously the Director looked at him, and replied embarrassed, to go and see a Doctor. Which the Director didn’t know, that the British Teacher was trying to explain his problem with his TERCERO, or Third Classroom in English. Because of this misunderstanding, they all laugh to hell.
    You see, the problem is not only with verbs, pronouns or articles; but also the Pronunciation. And some British people specially have some problems with the “R”. Ask them to say Recoger, Traspatio, Trasero, Erradicar, Carro, just to mention a few.
    And you’ll laugh at their expenses jajaja
    I tried to Teach them in a funny way to pronounce the difficult “R”, with a simple Pen between your tooth, and you’ll see the difference, by getting accustomed to the Pen, you’ll increase your pronunciation. Try & Let me know if that works for you.
    Buena suerte, and don’t feel embarrassed next time, we LATINAS, love your accent, and we think is pretty, more accent you guys have, more in love we are…
    Just speak, don’t be afraid of mistakes, we do too when speaking English, so, just enjoy and have fun:))

    1. Really funny. I made a similar mistake trying to say “tesoro” once – now I understand my error.

  6. Thanks RS. I can add a couple of other examples of mistakes gringos commonly make. An expat friend told his Cuencana neighbor that he had 68 anuses when he meant to say he was 68 years old. That little thingy above the n is pretty important. I’ve also heard expats confusing mothers and tits — again, the accent over the a makes a lot of difference.

  7. I’ll agree with the importance of pronunciation. I hear Americans who say they are fluent, speaking the most awful Spanglish. When we were there recently, many natives said the same. We can’t understand you because the accent is so funny.

    1. I have a Cuencano friend who is learning English and helping me a bit with Spanish, she was stuck on bear, bare, beer, bar, it works both ways, English has its quirks,,, I helped her thru it LOL I took her for a beer at a bar with a half bare bear, we were a sight to behold

    2. Big Amen, Marshall. When I was in high school, my mother announced that she was going to learn to speak Spanish. She enrolled in an Adult Education night class and the instructor was Fred Leach, my 8th grade Spanish teacher.

      One night, she came home and greeted me with “¿Cómo está usted? ” in the worst Spanish I had ever heard. I said, “No, Ma, it’s pronounced…” We went through it 5-6 times and she still couldn’t hear the difference between what I was saying and what she was trying to say. I hear the same awful Spanish here whenever I have the courage to go out in the gringo community. Thank goodness, that isn’t very often.

      1. I do think that they were are those of us who can much more easily hear the subtle nuances of pronunciation regardless of the language… I don’t speak French very well, but if you give me a page I sound French. When I was in turkey, the guys were very surprised to hear me pronounce words by sounding them out correctly. I do think that perhaps it’s a talent that comes more easily to some.

        1. I agree with you completely. My mother just didn’t have an ear for Spanish, yet her Polish was excellent.

    3. Agree! It pains me to hear mangled Spanish pronunciation. Sometimes it seems like they don’t even try they just use English pronunciation with the Spanish word! My Spanish grandparents would’ve been horrified…

  8. My Spanish teacher taught us L-O-N-E-R-S. She said 92% of the words that end in these letters are masculine. That was a big help. She also warned us to not confuse “miedo” and “mierdo.” 😉

    1. Interesting! I’ll watch for those loner words. Another trick is that the only written letters that can be double are in the word CAROLINE.

  9. In 2002 I was traumatized by confusing cochina and cocina. In Italian it is cochina. It means kitchen. In Spanish is means anything nasty. It was an honest confusion as I knew both, but in the moment I just said it in Italian (I had just had a conversation about a TV show with Cochina in the title just days before). I had to endure repeating it for my ex-wife’s family a half dozen times so they could have a side-splitting laugh. I stopped trying to speak Spanish until 2015.

    1. Funny! I hadn’t thought about false cognates among romance languages. That might make for an interesting master’s thesis in linguistics.

  10. I used to make many errors like these years ago when I learned Spanish. Great article. Mil gracias.
    Anna Rayne-Levi

    1. Thanks for your comments. Glad you got a kick out of the article. I’m already working on a follow-up based on inputs from you and others!

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