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Beware of False Cognates in English and Spanish

written by: Larry M. Lynch • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/27/2012

Both Spanish and English language learners can get tripped up by cognates. Here are some of the most frequently encountered Spanish false cognates and their meanings in both English and Spanish to help avoid mistakes in communication.

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    Abruptly taken aback, I regrouped my thoughts and asked again:

    What did you say?"

    The employee repeated his statement once again, much to my surprise:

    I didn’t come to work last week because I was intoxicated."

    It still took another moment for what the employee had said to sink in. Why would someone admit such a thing to their boss? The employee didn’t have a drinking problem though, as I soon learned. The problem was one of false cognates in English and Spanish. You see, the verb “intoxicar" in Spanish refers to “food poisoning" while its English language counterpart refers to being “drunk", usually from excessive alcohol intake.

    There are a considerable number of cognates in Spanish and English, that is, words which look or are spelled similarly in the two languages. True cognates are those which also have the same or very similar meanings in both languages as well. Spanish false cognates, however, have an entirely different meaning than their English counterparts, as noted in the above instance.

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    Examples

    Here is a short list of frequently encountered false cognates from Spanish to English you should be familiar with when conversing with native Spanish speakers:

    Pie – In Spanish, this word means “foot" but in English it’s a type of pastry baked with a fruit filling.

    Assist – In Spanish, this means “to attend" or “to be physically present." In English, though, it means “to help" or “to provide assistance."

    Contest – In Spanish, this is a form of the verb “contestar," which means “to answer" or “to respond" rather than the English language meaning of “a competition."

    Fume – The verb “fumar" means “to smoke" in Spanish, a far cry from the English meaning of “vapor" or “gas."

    Libreria – Not a “library" or “a place to store and read books" as in English, rather, it’s a place to buy books or a book store.

    Mayor – Another frequently encountered term which can cause confusion, in Spanish, it refers to being “older in age" or “wholesale" in business versus retail while the English meaning is that of the title of the head official in a municipal government.

    Sin – In Spanish, “without" is the most common meaning of this false cognate while it refers to “wrongdoing" in English.

    Tarjeta – A reference to a small card like an ID card, bank card or credit card, it’s nonetheless quite similar to the English word “target," “an object of focus", with which it is often confused. Although the words are spelled a bit differently, their pronunciation in Latin American Spanish is virtually the same.

    Recognize – This is the verb “reconocer" in Spanish, which means “to admit" as in “admit an error." The English word “recognize" has reference to “making an identification" or “to identify."

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    pregnant woman Exit – In English, the meaning of this word is “a place to leave a room or building," the opposite of “to enter," while its Spanish language counterpart refers to “success" or “being a success" as in a successful or profitable business venture.

    Realize – This means “to suddenly or abruptly understand" in English but means “to do an activity" or “complete an action" in the Spanish language.

    Labor – A “labor" is an “assignment" in Spanish while it refers to “work" or “physical labor or physical activity" in the English language.

    Embarrass – This is a quite commonly encountered and troublesome Spanish false cognate. The Spanish meaning of the cognate “embarazar" or “embarazada" is “pregnant" while its English language counterpart refers more to “shame." For native Spanish speakers, it would be humorous for a man to say, “Estoy embarazada," intending to mean he’s embarrassed, when he’s actually saying, “I’m pregnant!"

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    Friend or Foe

    Cognates in English and Spanish can be friends or troublesome foes in the process of learning Spanish or English. With some care, the study and practice Spanish false cognates need not be a stumbling block. Good luck in your studies!

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