Cognates Are Words That Have Similar Origins

Spanish and English share much of their everyday vocabulary

World Cup stadium
The sport known as "football" in some English-speaking countries is "fútbol" in Spanish.

A C Moraes / Flickr

In a technical sense, two words that have a common origin are cognates. Most often, cognates are words in two languages that have a common etymology, or background, and are similar or identical. For example, the English word "kiosk" and the Spanish quiosco are cognates because they both come from the Turkish word kosk. The Turkish word is also a cognate of the English and Spanish words.

One of the best things about learning Spanish from English is that there are about 1,000 common words that are cognates. In addition to the advantage of using the same alphabet, you can effectively know many word meanings without even trying. Examples of cognate pairs include "azure" and azul, "committee" and comité, and "telephone" and teléfono.

A cognate in Spanish in un cognado. Other terms sometimes used are palabra afín, palabra relacionada, and palabra cognada.

Types of Spanish-English Cognates

Spanish-English cognates can be categorized by how they became part of each language. Some words fit more than one category.

Words that come from Latin: Most cognates are of this type, and most such words became English by way of French. Examples: school/escuela, gravity/gravedad, responsible/responsable.

Words that come from Greek: Most of these words came to both languages by way of Latin. Examples: drama/drama, planet/planeta, charisma/carisma.

Words that originated in other languages: Many words in this category are of foods, animals, and other natural phenomena. Examples: hurricane/huracán (from Arawak), kiwi/kiwi (from Maori), tea/ (from Chinese).

English words adopted from Spanish: Many of these words entered English through the Spanish conquest of the Americas and/or through the influence of Mexican culture in the United States. Examples: canyon/cañon, plaza/plaza, salsa/salsa.

Spanish words adopted from English: Most words imported these days into Spanish are from
English and include those related to technology and pop culture. gigabyte/gigabyte, jeans/jeans, Internet/internet.

Word Meanings Can Change Over Time

Cognates often have a similar meaning, but in some cases, the meaning can change over the centuries in one language or another. An example of such a change in the English word "arena," which usually refers to a sports facility, and the Spanish arena, which means "sand." Both words come from the Latin word harena, which originally meant "sand," and both can refer to an area of a Roman amphitheater that was covered with sand. Spanish retained the meaning of "sand," and also uses the word to refer to a sports arena. English only borrowed the word from Latin meaning "arena" as a facility like a Roman amphitheater. English already had a word for "sand," and it is not a cognate of arena.

False Cognates

False cognates are words that people commonly believe are related, but that linguistic examination reveals are unrelated and have no common origin. Another term for this is "false friend." An example of false friends are the Spanish word sopa, meaning "soup," and the English word, "soap." Both look alike, but are not related. The Spanish word for "soap" is jabón.

Other examples of false cognates include the English word "much" and the Spanish word mucho, both look similar and have a similar meaning but are not cognates, as they evolved from different roots, "much" from early Germanic and mucho from Latin. The Spanish word parar, meaning "to stop," and the English word "pare," meaning, "to trim," are also false cognates.

List of Common False Cognates

There are many words that are cognates in English and Spanish. You see a word, it reminds you of an English word. You understand the meaning. But there are some trap words that can make you think it means one thing, but in fact, it does not mean what it sounds like. What follows is a list of common false cognates to help you navigate past the traps.

Spanish Word Meaning Use in a Sentence
Actualmente Means "currently" rather than "actually." Actualmente el presidente de Estados Unidos es Donald Trump.
Contestar Means "to answer" rather than "to contest." Voy a contestar el teléfono.
Constipado Someone who is constipado has a cold and isn't necessarily constipated. Esta constipado.
Embarazada Someone with this condition is pregnant but doesn't have to be embarrassed.  Mi hermana está embarazada.
En absoluto Means "not at all" rather than "absolutely." No me gustan los perros en absoluto.
Minorista Refers as a noun or adjective to a retailer rather than someone who is in a minority. Macy's es una tienda minorista.
Molestar This is a word that means to bother or to annoy, not necessarily in a sexual way unless the context indicates otherwise. No molestes a su hermano.
Realizar This means to become real or completed rather than a mental act of realization. Yo realicé mi sueño de ser abogado.
Tuna A tuna fish is an atún; this word refers to a type of prickly cactus. Quiero beber jugo de tuna.
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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Cognates Are Words That Have Similar Origins." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Cognates Are Words That Have Similar Origins. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Cognates Are Words That Have Similar Origins." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).