False Friends in Spanish and English

A Look at Misleading Cognates

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Learning Spanish vocabulary can seem so easy: Constitución means "constitution," nación means "nation," and decepción means "deception," right?

Not quite. True, most words that end in -ción can be translated into English by changing the suffix to "-tion." And the pattern holds true for the first two words listed above (although constitución refers to how something is constituted more often than does the English word, which usually refers to a political document). But una decepción is a disappointment, not a deception.

English Translations of Spanish False Cognates

Spanish and English have literally thousands of cognates, words that are basically the same in both languages, having the same etymology and similar meanings. But combinations such as decepción and "deception" are so-called false cognates — known more precisely as "false friends" or falsos amigos — word pairs that look like they might mean the same thing but don't. They can be confusing, and if you make the mistake of using them in speech or writing you're likely to be misunderstood.

Following is a list of some of the most common false friends — some of the ones you're most likely to come across when reading or listening to Spanish:

  • Actual: This adjective (or its corresponding adverb, actualmente) indicates that something is current, at the present time. Thus the day's hot topic might be referred to as un tema actual. If you wish to say something is actual (as opposed to imaginary), use real (which also can mean "royal") or verdadero.
  • Asistir: Means to attend or to be present. Asisto a la oficina cada día, I go to the office daily. To say "to assist," use ayudar, to help.
  • Atender: Means to serve or to take care of, to attend to. If you're talking about attending a meeting or a class, use asistir.
  • Basamento: You won't run across this word often, but it's the base of a column, sometimes called a plinth. If you want to visit a basement, go down to el sótano.
  • Billón: 1,000,000,000,000. That number is the same as a trillion in American English but a billion in traditional British English. (Modern British English conforms with U.S. English, however.)
  • Bizarro: Somebody who's this way is brave, not necessarily strange. The English word "bizarre" is conveyed better by extraño or estrafalario.
  • Boda: If you go to a wedding or wedding reception, this is what you're going to. A body (as of a person or animal) is most often cuerpo or tronco.
  • Campo: Means a field or the country (in the sense of living in the country, not the city). If you're going camping, you'll probably be staying at a campamento or even a camping.
  • Carpeta: Although this can refer to a type of table cover, it doesn't have anything to do with carpets. It most often means a file folder (including the virtual kind) or a briefcase. "Carpet" is most often alfombra.
  • Complexión: This refers not to your skin, but to one's physiological build (a well-built man is un hombre de complexión fuerte). To speak of skin complexion, use tez or cutis.
  • Compromiso: Meaning a promise, obligation, or commitment, it does not usually convey the sense that one has given up something to reach an agreement. There is no good noun equivalent of "compromise" that would be understood that way out of context, although the verb transigir conveys the sense of giving in to, yielding to, or tolerating another person.
  • Constiparse, constipación: In verb form, it means to catch a cold, while una constipación is one of the words that means a cold. Someone who is constipated is estreñido.
  • Contestar: It's a very common verb meaning to answer. To contest something, use contender.
  • Corresponder: Yes, it does mean to correspond, but only in the sense of to match. If you're talking about corresponding with someone, use a form of escribir con or mantener correspondencia.
  • Decepción, decepcionar: Means disappointment or to disappoint. To deceive someone is to engañar a alguién. Something deceptive is engañoso.
  • Delito: There's seldom much delightful about a crime. (Delito usually refers to a minor crime, as contrasted with a serious crime or crimen.) The feeling of delight can be a deleite, while the object that causes it an encanto or delicia (note that the latter word often has a sexual connotation).
  • Desgracia: In Spanish, this is little more than a mistake or misfortune. Something shameful is una vergüenza or una deshonra.
  • Despertar: This verb is usually used in the reflexive form, meaning to wake up (me despierto a las siete, I wake up at seven). If you're desperate, there's a true cognate you can use: desesperado.
  • Destituido: Someone who has been removed from office is destituido. Someone without money is indigente or desamparado.
  • Disgusto: Derived from the prefix dis- (meaning "not") and the root word gusto (meaning "pleasure"), this word refers simply to displeasure or misfortune. If you need to use a much stronger term akin to "disgust," use asco or repugnancia.
  • Embarazada: It might be embarrassing to be pregnant, but it isn't necessarily. Someone who feels embarrassed tiene vergüenza or se siente avergonzado.
  • Emocionante: Used to describe something that's thrilling or emotionally moving. To say "emotional," the cognate emocional will often do fine.
  • En absoluto: This phrase means the opposite of what you think it might, meaning not at all or absolutely not. To say "absolutely," use the cognate totalmente or completamente.
  • Éxito: It's a hit or a success. If you're looking for a way out, look for una salida.
  • Fábrica: That's a place where they fabricate items, namely a factory. Words for "cloth" include tejido and tela.
  • Fútbol: Unless in a context that indicates otherwise, this means soccer. If you want to refer to the popular U.S. spectator sport, use fútbol americano.
  • Fútil: This refers to something trivial or insignificant. If your efforts are futile, use ineficaz, vano or inútil.
  • Insulación: This isn't even a word in Spanish (although you may hear it in Spanglish). If you want to say "insulation," use aislamiento.
  • Ganga: It's a bargain. Although ganga may be heard in Spanglish as a word for "gang," the usual word is pandilla.
  • Inconsecuente: This adjective refers to something that is contradictory. Something inconsequential is (among other possibilities) de poca importancia.
  • Introducir: This isn't truly a false cognate, for it 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 introdujo la ley en 1998, the law was introduced (put in effect) in 1998. But it's not the verb to use to introduce someone. Use presentar.
  • Largo: When referring to size, it means long. If it's big, it's also grande.
  • Minorista: Means retail (adjective) or retailer. A "minority" is una minoría.
  • Molestar: The verb doesn't usually have sexual connotations in Spanish, and it didn't originally in English either. It means simply to bother or to annoy. For the sexual meaning of "to molest" in English, use abusar sexualmente or some phrase that says more precisely what you mean.
  • Once: If you can count past 10, you know that once is the word for eleven. If something happens once, it happens una vez.
  • Pretender: The Spanish verb doesn't have anything to do with faking it, only to try. To pretend, use fingir or simular.
  • Rapista: This is an uncommon word for a barber (peluquero or even the cognate barbero is more common), derived from the verb rapar, to cut close or to shave. Someone who attacks sexually is a violador.
  • Realizar, realizacón: Realizar can be used reflexively to indicate something becoming real or becoming completed: Se realizó el rascacielos, the skyscraper was built. To realize as a mental event can be translated using darse cuenta ("to realize"), comprender ("to understand") or saber ("to know"), among other possibilities, depending on the context.
  • Recordar: Means to remember or to remind. The verb to use when recording something depends on what you're recording. Possibilities include anotar or tomar nota for writing something down, or grabar for making an audio or video recording.
  • Revolver: As its form suggests, this is a verb, in this case meaning to turn over, to revolve, or otherwise to cause disorder. The Spanish word for "revolver" is close, however: revólver.
  • Ropa: Clothing, not rope. Rope is cuerda or soga.
  • Sano: Usually means healthy. Someone who is sane is en su juicio or "in his right mind."
  • Sensible: Usually means sensitive or capable of feeling. A sensible person or idea can be referred to as sensato or razonable.
  • Sensiblemente: Usually means perceptibly or appreciably, sometimes painfully. A good synonym for "sensibly" is sesudamente.
  • Sopa: Soup, not soap. Soap is jabón.
  • Suceso: Merely an event or happening, sometimes a crime. A success is un éxito.
  • Tuna: Order this at a desert restaurant and you'll get edible cactus. A tuna is also a college musical glee club. The fish is atún.

Especially in the United States, Spanish doesn't exist in a vacuum. In the United States, you may hear some speakers, especially those who frequently speak Spanglish, use some of these false cognates when speaking Spanish. A few of these usages may be creeping into the language elsewhere, although they would still be considered substandard.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "False Friends in Spanish and English." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/obvious-but-wrong-false-friends-3078344. Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). False Friends in Spanish and English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/obvious-but-wrong-false-friends-3078344 Erichsen, Gerald. "False Friends in Spanish and English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/obvious-but-wrong-false-friends-3078344 (accessed June 6, 2023).