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

Feb 19, 2024 | 0 comments

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 posts February 26.

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, she doesn't look embarrassed.

Funny, 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


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