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More Amigos Falsos! Part II of embarrassing mistakes expats make using Spanish

My recent Amigos Falsos article about the pit and pratfalls of false cognates unleased a landslide of comments and funny examples of more awkward expat Spanglish errors.

A person called Wonder Woman reminds us that tercero y trasero are easily confused. The first means third, the second means derriere, pardon my French. Your trasero  may be a tesoro, but make sure you know the difference.

The power and pronunciation of the “ñ” should not be understated. Learn to find it on your keyboard as the little letter can mean the difference between anus (anos) and years (años), a mistake you won’t want to make on a birthday greeting. Fun fake fact: when the Irish new age musician Enya tours Latin America, she calls herself  “Ñ” to conserve vowels.

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Vowels matter in Spain when you say polla (male anatomy again!) instead of pollo (chicken). Remember, folks: it’s “pollo loco!” Well meaning Anglophones seem to do a lot of tripping over male anatomy. When inviting the local police chief to a potluck, instead of, piña (pineapple), reader RS asked him to bring a pené (penis).  He brought both and shared the gaffe with the rest of the police force. I would have probably left town, but RS stuck it out. Need to fix your hair? The word peine (comb) might be risky for the same reason. Along these lines, Jane pointed out that the word pico is perfectly acceptable in Spain (small, peak, beak), but not in Chile where, again, it features prominently on the male anatomical chart. If Mexican restaurants serve Pico de Gallo in Chile, I don’t want to know what it’s made from.

Una cocina cochina.

Unfortunately, Spanish isn’t immune from homophobia so don’t ask for directions to the maricon (pejorative for gay guy) when you really mean malecon (boardwalk or pier).

And if you don’t want to sound like a boob at KFC in Mexico, expat Charles  suggests you order pechuga not pechos.  (Not a problem for me. I never ate KFC after my mom told me it stood for Kentucky Fried Children.)

As long as we’re eating crow, Loren reminds us not to confuse cochina (dirty) and cocina (kitchen), especially if you’re trying to complement your Mexican mother-in-law’s paella (slang for female genitalia). And while you’re waiting for dinner, Kayla learned the hard way that tengo hombre doesn’t mean you’re hungry (tengo hambre).

Many readers fear saying mierda (poop) when they mean miedo (fear) . A pellicula de miedo (scary movie) may be a mierda, but you should be clear on the difference. A dude named Guy reminds us that a tienda de groserias (swearword store) isn’t a place to buy groceries.

Your first medical visit doesn’t have to add insult to injury. You may have dolor (pain) when you go to the doctor, especially when you pay in dólar (dollar). Be sure not to say culo (butt) if it’s really your cuello (neck) that’s bleeding.  Ingle is groin; Inglés is the language you’re trying not to speak. When it doubt, just point and moan.

On the noun gender shortcuts thread, Maria shared a Spanish teacher’s trick that  most of the words that end in the letters L-O-N-E-R-S (like teléfono or autobús) are masculine. My wife reminded me that the only written letters that can be doubled in Spanish (as in zoológico or accion) are contained in the word CAROLINE.

If you happen to be at the zoológico, Keenan reminds you not to say mamarlo (to suck it) when you really mean mammifero (mammal). But speaking of animals, a rolling “r” makes all the difference between pero (but) and perro (dog). The paired  “r” (a “diagraph”) gets a harder, flutter-tongued sound than its lonely counterpart.

If you’re unhappy with this article, Kerry suggests that you may feel decepcionado which sounds like “deceived” but really means disillusioned or disappointed. On the other hand, maybe you’re feeling a bit engañado (deceived) as well.

Many of these false cognate mistakes are based on educated guesses and patterns which often turn out to be correct so when in doubt, blurt it out. At worst, you’ll be embarrassed, a word we stumbled over in the previous article.

One final warning: Color metaphors are fraught with danger. One of my classic mistakes was to use the word “green” which, in English, means I’m a novice. Unfortunately, verde in Spain is slang for pervert which wasn’t a good way to introduce myself to a language class.

How about you? Any more green and entertaining slips, Freudian or otherwise? Leave a comment!

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.

16 thoughts on “More Amigos Falsos! Part II of embarrassing mistakes expats make using Spanish

  1. if you use Windows 10, here is a good tip, I use it everyday to type Spanish accents, all of them, Look at Option 1 in the article

    Having SpanishDict (not dick) app on your smart phone solves many of these verbal slips.

    As for KFC, it is a big deal in Cuenca. The first time I met my Cuencano son in law’s parents for dinner they bought a whole bucket because we were, well, gringos. To this day I laugh about that one but the old man also had some nice whiskey to share, we were good.

      1. interestingly, in Burlington, where I live part of the year, we have only one KFC and its not near me, there are tons in Cuenca as you know, and in fact I do like KFC, but rarely indulge, its one of the few fast food joints I actually like (ok Arby’s)

  2. Another clue to help is words ending in “ma” are usually masculine, and words ending in “dad” are feminine. If the English word ends in “c” just add an “o” and it becomes Spanish.

    1. Thanks! I touched on the “-ma” trick in the original article last week. It turns out that most of these masculine nouns come from Greek. There are exceptions (always!) like “victima” which comes from Latin. In general, it’s a great shortcut!

    1. I’d like to say I did it intentionally, but it was really just my bad! You get the independent editor award!

  3. Greetings from Madrid, España! La gente aqui son muy amable – many speak English and if I attempt to communicate in spanish they quickly clue me in that their English is much better than my Spanish. There’s a bar on Plaza de La Latina that’s called ‘Japy Bar.’ I passed it yesterday and thought…ah…sushi!

  4. Very entertaining Ron…so funny !!
    And of course, as you know, for us, your accent, your mistakes, your pronunciation, is just simply funny and charming. I love when someone says cochina instead of cocina; or mierda instead of miedo; or trasero instead if tercero; or hombre instead of hambre…this is charming jajaja
    This is simply acceptable for you guys instead of gays, or maybe both jajaja
    Very funny, but you need to watch out when you’re in a serious situation, not to be embarrassed after, because of your bad pronunciation. Next time if you don’t know what you really mean, just ask for help, don’t get into an awkward situation.
    Just like when you go to the Market and ask for pechos instead of pechuga. I heard this before, and I just laughed. This reminds me to take care of my English too, and ALL the mistakes I do jajaja
    Good luck everybody, and enjoy your time in Cuenca !!

  5. I always tell my students of Spanish, English and French that the three Keys to learn and acquire another language is PRACTICE, PRACTICE and PRACTICE…BE IN TOUCH WITH THE NEW LANGUAGE through reading, writing, speaking and listening…CCNations professor

  6. I always tell my students of English, French and Spanish that the three keys to learn and acquire a new language are PRACTICE, PRACTICE and PRACTICE. You have to be in touch with the new language through reading, writing, speaking and listening. Results are guranteed!

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