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

Sep 14, 2019 | 16 comments

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.

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.


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