What are False Friends?
Words that are written and sound similar between languages (but don’t mean the same thing!) are called false friends or false cognates. They are tricky words. They look like they are going to make your language learning process easier – like they are an easy translation of a word you already know from your native language. But, in fact, their meaning is far from what you think.
A lot of words from different languages have their etymology in the Latin language. But Latin words might change their definitions from language to language. Most romance languages keep the original meaning; but other languages, like English, change them.
Though English is a Germanic language, it has borrowed many words from Latin, but changed the meaning of some. Since Spanish is a romance language, it also has many words that come directly from Latin. Therefore, you can read many words in Spanish and English that look and sound alike, but mean something different.
All languages around the world have always borrowed words from each other and changed them. Hence the false friends. Sometimes even native speakers can make mistakes relating to their own language. For example: if a native Spanish speaker learns a word in English that looks a lot like a Spanish word, they might end up using it wrong in their own mother tongue. That’s the way languages change over time.
Think of bizarro, which looks a lot like bizarre. In Spanish, bizarro is brave, but a lot of Spanish-speaking people started using it as “strange”, because of the English word. Now it is more accepted to use that term to talk about something weird.
Oh! And yes, true cognates also exist.
25 False Friends in English & Spanish
1. Actually – Actualmente
In Spanish, “actually” means en realidad or realmente. In English, actualmente is “nowadays” or “currently”.
2. Carpet – Carpeta
Carpet is alfombra in Spanish. Carpeta is “folder” in English. There’s only one letter of difference, hence the confusion.
3. Soap – Sopa
The only difference between these words is that the letters are exchanged. So, even if you know the difference in the sound, it still might be hard to write them correctly. In Spanish, “soap” is jabón. In English, sopa is “soup” (still looks a lot like the other two words).
4. Embarrassed – Embarazada
In Spanish, “embarrassed” is avergonzado(a). In English, embarazada is “pregnant”.
5. Date – Dato
Again, there’s only one letter of difference, but the meaning is different. “Date” is fecha or cita in Spanish. Dato is “fact” in English.
6. Rope – Ropa
In Spanish, “rope” is cuerda. In English, ropa is “clothes”.
7. Dinner – Dinero
In Spanish, “dinner” is cena. In English, dinero is “money”.
8. Exit – Éxito
In Spanish, “exit” is salida. In English, éxito is “success”.
9. Sensible – Sensible
Though they are written the same, their pronunciation and meaning differ. In Spanish, “sensible” is sensato. In English, sensible is “sensitive”.
10. Idiom – Idioma
If you’re learning a new language, don’t make this mistake. In Spanish, “idiom” is modismo. In English, idioma is “language”. In Spanish, you might also hear lenguaje as another way to say “language”. Both idioma and lenguaje are correct.
11. Compromise – Compromiso
In Spanish, there’s not an exact word to explain an agreement between two or more people. But you could say, llegamos a un acuerdo (we came to an agreement) or hay que sacrificar algo (we have to compromise something).
When it is about putting someone in danger, you can use the phrase, poner en peligro. For example, Puso en peligro nuestras vidas (he compromised our lives).
In English, compromiso is “commitment”.
12. Career – Carrera
In Spanish, “career” is trayectoria/carrera profesional. In English, carrera is “race” (in the sports sense) or “degree” (in the studying sense). So, when someone asks you, ¿Qué carrera estudias? It means, “What degree are you studying?” And when they ask: ¿Puedes decirme un poco más sobre tu trayectoria profesional? they mean “can you tell me a little bit more about your career path?”.
13. Pie – Pie
“Pie” in Spanish is pay. Pie in English is “foot”.
14. Fabric – Fábrica
In Spanish, “fabric” is tela. In English, fábrica is “factory”.
15. Terrific – Terrorífico
In Spanish, “terrific” is fantástico or estupendo, an expression of something great. In English, terrorífico is “terrifying” (very similar too). As you can see, these words are completely opposite in both languages, though they don’t seem to be.
16. Presume – Presumir
In Spanish, “presume” is suponer or atreverse. It can also be used as presumir, but not in the sense of showing off, more like to suppose something. Usually used in legal terms. For example, Se le presume culpable (he’s presumed guilty).
In English, presumir is to show off. And it can also mean, as seen before, to suppose something. But is more formal than suponer.
17. Dessert – Desierto
In Spanish, “dessert” is postre. In English, desierto is “desert”. This is one of the trickiest false friends for Spanish speakers because the only difference between dessert and desert is one “s”.
18. Constipated – Constipado
In Spanish, “constipated” is estreñido. In English, constipado is “having a cold”.
19. Library – Librería
In Spanish, “library” is biblioteca. In English, librería is “bookshop”.
20. Assist – Asistir
In Spanish, “assist” is ayudar. In English, asistir a is “to attend”.
21. Large – Largo
In Spanish, “large” is grande. In English, largo is “long”.
22. Jam – Jamón
In Spanish, “jam” is mermelada. In English, jamón is “ham”. As you can see, “jam” and “ham” are very similar, that’s why these words are especially difficult for Spanish speakers. They also pronounce the “j” the same way that the “h” sounds in “ham”.
23. Nude – Nudo
“Nude” in Spanish is desnudo. Nudo in English is “knot”.
24. Realize – Realizar
In Spanish, “realize” is darse cuenta de (algo). In English, realizar is “to do (something)”.
25. Choke – Chocar
In Spanish, “choke” is ahogarse/atragantarse. In English, chocar is “to crash”.
Why are Spanish and English Important?
Both Spanish and English are some of the most spoken languages around the globe. A lot of people speak English as their second language. So, if you don’t know someone’s native language (if you’re traveling in Europe or Asia, perhaps), English might be useful to talk to them, since many people have a basic understanding of it. It will also come in handy when traveling or doing business.
Spanish is also a popular first and second language. In the United States, for example, there are many immigrants whose first language is Spanish. So, it will help you even in English-speaking countries. Either for its beauty, complexity, or functionality, people love to learn Spanish.
As you can see, these are important languages to learn. And when you do it, you will probably make one of these mistakes. False friends are very common, so don’t let them stop you from improving. Try a lesson with a TruFluency Spanish language tutor. Having a conversation with your teacher will make you express your ideas using at least one of these words. If you make a mistake, the tutor won’t judge you and will help you understand the true meaning. With our tutoring classes, you’ll be able to communicate more confidently and more clearly.