Almost, But Not Quite

'Fickle Friends' Can Be Confusing

Beach in the Canary Islands.
La playa tiene mucha arena. (The beach has a lot of sand.). Photo by Juan Ramón Rodríguez Sosa used under terms of Creative Commons license.

One of the most popular features on this site has been the list of false friends, those words that look the same or almost the same as English words but have different meanings. However, such words aren't the only dangerous ones for those who believe (usually correctly) that knowing English gives them a head start on Spanish vocabulary. For there also are a number of words that might be called fickle friends, words that are roughly synonymous with English words but have a different connotation, or that are synonymous some of the time but not always.

These words can be confusing to anyone with a knowledge of English who is speaking Spanish as a second language.

(Although technically not accurate, false friends are often referred to as false cognates. Presumably, that would make fickle friends known as partial cognates.)

To take an extreme example of a fickle friend, one so extreme it is on the list of false friends, look at molestar, which is related to the English verb "to molest." In English, the verb can mean "to bother," which is its Spanish meaning, as in the sentence "they continued on their journey unmolested." But far more often, almost always, the English word has a sexual connotation that is absent in Spanish.

Many of the words on the following list are something like that, in that they have a meaning similar to an English one but often mean something different. Translating them as the English cognates may make sense some of the time but frequently it won't.

  • Acción: It is usually synonymous with "action" in its various meanings. But to a stock broker it can also mean a "share," and to an artist it can be "posture" or "pose."
  • Adecuado: This word can mean "adequate" in the sense of being appropriate. But "adequate" can have a negative connotation that adecuado doesn't. It's usually better to translade adecuado as "suitable" or "fitting."
  • Admirar: It can mean "to admire." But it frequently means "to surprise" or "to astonish."
  • Afección: Once in a while, this word does refer to a fondness toward somebody or something. But far more commonly it refers to a disease or some other sort of medical condition. Better words for "affection" are another cognate, afecto, and a separate word, cariño.
  • Agonía: Nobody wants to be in agony, but the Spanish agonía is much worse, usually suggesting that someone is in the final stages of death.
  • Americano: The understanding of this word varies from place to place. If you're from the United States, it's safest to say "soy de los Estados Unidos."
  • Aparente: It can mean the same as the English "apparent." However, the Spanish usually carries a strong implication that things aren't what they appear to be. Thus, "aparentemente fue a la tienda" would usually be understood not as "he apparently went to the store" but as "it appeared like he had gone to the store but he didn't."
  • Aplicar: Yes, this word does mean "apply," as in applying an ointment or a theory. But if you're applying for a job, use solicitar (although there is some regional usage of aplicar). Similarly, an application for a job or something else you would apply for is a solicitud.
  • Apología: The Spanish word doesn't have anything to do with saying you're sorry. But it is synonymous with the English word "apology" only when it means "a defense," as in a defense of the faith. An apology in the usual sense of the word is excusa or disculpa.
  • Arena: In sports, arena can refer to an arena. But it is more commonly used as the word for "sand."
  • Argumento: This word and its verb form, argumentar, refer to the type of argument a lawyer might make. It can also refer to the theme of a book, play or similar work. On the other hand, a quarrel could be a discusión or disputa.
  • Balance, balanceo, balancear: Although these words can sometimes be translated as "balance," they most often refer to a swinging or oscillation. Words with meanings more closely related to the English "balance" include balanza, equilibrio, saldo, equilibrar, contrapesar and saldar.
  • Cándido: Although this word can mean "frank," it more often means "naively innocent."
  • Colegio: The Spanish word can refer to almost any school, not just ones that provide university-level classes.
  • Collar: This word is used when referring to the collar a pet (such as a dog) might wear, and it also can refer to a ringlike mechanical item known as a collar. But the collar of a shirt, jacket or similar type of apparel is a cuello (the word for "neck"). Collar can also refer to a necklace or similar item worn around the neck.
  • Conducir: It can mean "to conduct" or (in the reflexive form conducirse) "to conduct oneself." But it more often means "to drive" or "to transport." For that reason, a conductor on a train (or other vehicle) is the person in the driving seat, not someone who handles tickets.
  • Confidencia: Its meaning is related to the English meaning of "confidence" as a secret. If you're referring to trust in someone, confianza would be more appropriate.
  • Criatura: Most commonly it means "creature" or "being," including humans. But it is also commonly used to refer to babies and even to fetuses.
  • Debate: This word often does refer to a debate, particularly one in a legislative body. But it also frequently refers to a discussion, one that doesn't have to include opposing viewpoints.
  • Defraudar: This verb doesn't have to imply wrongdoing. Although it can mean "to defraud," it more often means "to disappoint."
  • Demandar: As a legal term only, demandar and the noun form, la demanda, are similar to the English "demand." But to demand something in a less formal situation, use exigir or exigencia.
  • Dirección: It usually means "direction" in most of the ways it is used in English. But it is also the most common way of referring to a postal or email address.
  • Discusión: The Spanish word often carries the connotation that a discussion has become heated. Alternatives include conversación and debate (which doesn't have to refer to a formal debate).
  • En efecto: This phrase can mean "in effect." But it also can mean "in fact," not quite the same thing.
  • Estupor: In medical usage, this word refers to a stupor. But in everyday meaning it refers to a state of amazement or astonishment. Usually the context will make clear what meaning is meant.
  • Etiqueta: It can refer to etiquette and the requirements of formality. However, it also frequently means "tag" or "label." The verb form, etiquetar, means "to label."
  • Excitado: This adjective can be synonymous with "excited," but a closer equivalent is "aroused" — which doesn't necessarily have to do with sexual overtones but usually does. Better translations of "excited" include emocionado and agitado.
  • Experimentar: This is what scientists and other people do when they're trying something out. However, the word also often means "to suffer" or "to experience."
  • Familiar: In Spanish, the adjective is more closely connected with the meaning of "family" than in English. Often a better word to use for something you're familiar with is conocido ("known") or común ("common").
  • Habitual: The word often does mean "habitual" and it is a common translation for the English word. But it can refer to something that is normal, typical or customary.
  • Hindú: Hindú can refer to a Hindu, but it can also refer to someone from India regardless of the person's religion. Someone from India can also be called an indio, a word also used to refer to indigenous people of North and South America. An American Indian is also often called an indígena (a word both masculine and feminine).
  • Historia: This word is obviously related to the English word "history," but it is also similar to "story." It can mean either one.
  • Honesto: It can mean "honest." But honesto and its negative form, deshonesto, more often have sexual overtones, meaning "chaste" and "lewd" or "slutty," respectively. Better words for "honest" are honrado and sincero.
  • Intentar: Like the English cognate, it can mean to plan or want to do something. But it also is frequently used to indicate more than a mental state, referring to an actual attempt. It thus is often a good translation for "to try."
  • Intoxicado, intoxicar: These words refer to almost any kind of poisoning. To refer specifically to the symptoms of alcohol poisoning, use borracho or any number of slang terms.
  • Introducir: This verb can be translated as, among other things, "to introduce" in the sense of "to bring in," "to begin," "to put" or "to place." For example, se introduce la ley en 1998, the law was introduced (put in effect) in 1998. But it's not the verb to use to introduce someone. For that purpose, use presentar.
  • Marcar: While it usually means "to mark" in some way, it also can mean "to dial" a telephone, "to score" in a game, and "to notice." Marca is most often "brand" (with origins similar to the English "trademark"), while marco can be a "window frame" or "picture frame."
  • Misería: In Spanish, the word more often carries the connotation of extreme poverty than does the English "misery."
  • Notorio: Like the English "notorious," it means "well-known," but in Spanish it usually doesn't have the negative connotation.
  • Opaco: It can mean "opaque," but it can also mean "dark" or "gloomy."
  • Oración: Like the English "oration," an oración can refer to a speech. But it also can refer to a prayer or a sentence (in the grammatical sense).
  • Oscuro: It can mean "obscure," but it more often means "dark."
  • Parientes: All of one's relatives are parientes in Spanish, not just parents. To refer to parents specifically, use padres.
  • Petición: In English, "petition" as a noun most often means a list of names or a legal demand of some sort. Petición (among other words) can be used as a Spanish translation in such cases, but most often petición refers to almost any kind of request.
  • Pimienta, pimiento: Although the English words "pimento" and "pimiento" come from the Spanish words pimienta and pimiento, they aren't all interchangeable. Depending on region and speaker, the English terms can refer to allspice (malageta in Spanish) or a type of sweet garden pepper known as pimiento morrón. Standing alone, both pimiento and pimienta are general words meaning "pepper." More specifically, pimienta usually refers to a black or white pepper, while pimiento refers to a red or green pepper. Unless the context is clear, Spanish usually uses these words as part of a phrase such as pimiento de Padróna (a type of small green pepper) or pimienta negra (black pepper).
  • Preservativo: You might find yourself embarrassed if you go to a store and ask for one of these, because you could end up with a condom (sometimes referred to as a condón in Spanish). If you want a preservative, ask for a conservante (although the word preservativo is also used at times).
  • Probar: It can mean "to probe" or "to test." But it is frequently used to mean "to taste" or "to try on" clothes.
  • Profundo: It can have some of the meanings of the English "profound." But it more often means "deep."
  • Propaganda: The Spanish word can have the negative implications of the English word, but it often doesn't, simply meaning "advertising."
  • Punto: "Point" often works as a translation of this word, but it also has a variety of other meanings such as "dot," "period," a type of stitch, "belt hole," "cog," "opportunity," and "taxi stand."
    • Real, realismo: "Real" and "realism" are the obvious meanings, but these words also can mean "royal" and "regalism." Similarly, a realista can be either a realist or a royalist. Fortunately, realidad is "reality"; to say "royalty," use realeza.
    • Relativo: As an adjective, relativo and "relative" are often synonymous. But there is no Spanish noun relativo corresponding to the English "relative" when it refers to a family member. In that case, use pariente.
    • Rentar: In some areas of Latin America, rentar can indeed mean "to rent." But it also has a more common meaning, "to yield a profit." Similarly, the most common meaning of rentable is "profitable."
    • Rodeo: In the right context, it can mean "rodeo," although there are differences between the typical rodeos of the United States and of Mexico. But it can also mean an encirclement, a stockyard, or an indirect path. Figuratively, it also can mean an evasive reply, a "beating around the bush."
    • Rumor: When used in a figurative sense, it indeed does mean "rumor." But it also often means a low, soft sound of voices, commonly translated as "murmurring," or any soft, vague sound, such as the gurgling of a creek.
    • Soportar: Although it can be translated as "to support" in some usages, it often is better translated as "to tolerate" or "to endure." Some of the verbs that are better used to mean "to support" include sostener or aguantar in the sense of supporting weight, and apoyar or ayudar in the sense of supporting a friend.
    • Suburbio: Both "suburbs" and suburbios can refer to areas outside a city proper, but in Spanish the word usually has a negative connotation, referring to slums. A more neutral word to refer to suburbs is las afueras.
    • Típico: This word usually does mean "typical," but it doesn't have the negative connotation that the English word often has. Also, típico often means something along the lines of "traditional" or "having the characteristics of the local area." Thus if you see a restaurant offering comidas típicas, expect food that is characteristic for the region, not merely "typical" food.
    • Tortilla: In Spanish, the word can refer not only to a tortilla but also to an omelet.
    • Último: Although something that is the best can be referred to as lo último, the word more commonly means "last" or "most recent."
    • Vicioso: Although this word is sometimes translated as "vicious," it more often means "depraved" or simply "faulty."
    • Violar, violador: These words and words related to them have a sexual connotation more often than they do in English. While in English a violator may simply be someone who drives too fast, in Spanish a violador is a rapist.