15 Spanish Words You’ve Been Misusing

Words that look alike do not always have the same meaning.

Have you ever heard the saying, “Not all that glitters is gold”? A few years back, I was walking through downtown Los Angeles when I came across a store that sold several disparate items. As I looked closer, I saw there were different kinds of foods and condiments. A very kind man asked me in broken Spanish if I wanted to buy some “groceries” –or so he thought that was what he asked. What he actually said was the Spanish word “groserias”, which translates as “vulgarities” in English. He was indeed asking me if I wanted to buy some “vulgarities”, to which I simply replied “not now thank you” with a wide smile on my face.

When you are learning Spanish, or any other language for that matter, it is common to come across certain words that seem similar to words in your native language. It is also common to assume that the meaning of such words is the same, or pretty close, to the word in your native language. However, one must be careful because such assumption is not always correct. Even though they may look alike, certain words have very different meanings. Those words are known as “false cognates” and, as opposed to real cognates, will look alike but have different meanings.

Usually, using cognates or being aware of them helps students of Spanish to remember vocabulary words, and in general, it is a good technique. For example, on many occasions words in Spanish that end in “-ción” can be translated by changing the ending (suffix) for “-tion”. Thus, we have words such as “imaginación” translated as “imagination”. Nevertheless, there are those words that will not translate by adding the “-tion” ending. Take the word “deception” for instance. If we add the ending “-ción”, we can form the word “decepción”; however, this Spanish word does not mean “trickery” or “fraud”, but rather “disappointment”. Therefore, saying you have a “descepción” (tengo una decepción) means you have a disappointment.

There is a long list of real cognates that can be useful to know as you advance in your Spanish studies, but for now we want to focus on the “false cognates” to prevent you from using them incorrectly. Let’s take a look at some of the most common error magnets when it comes to cognates:

  • Grocery – Usually confused with the word “groserias” meaning an act of rudeness or foul language.
  • Embarrassed – Usually confused with the word “embarazado (a)” meaning pregnant.
  • Complexion – Usually confused with the word “complexion” which describes the body build of a person, ex. “Complexión delgada” meaning, “thin”.
  • Cup – Usually taken as a cognate for the word “copa” which always means a fancy glass usually used for wine or champagne.
  • Exciting – Many times confused with a cognate for “excitado” which in Spanish always has a sexual connotation.
  • Once – Usually taken as the cognate of “once” which is how we write number 11 in Spanish.
  • Preservative – Wrongly taken as a cognate for the word “preservativo” which is a device used to not get pregnant.
  • Exit – Many times confused with a cognate for the word “éxito” which means success in Spanish.
  • Luxury – a word that may times is taken as a cognate of “lujuria” meaning lustfulness in Spanish.
  • Library – Very common to have this word confused as a cognate for the word “libreria” which means bookstore in Spanish.
  • Mark – This word can be taken as a cognate of the word “marca” which in Spanish means brand, as on brand of a product. However, the word is a true cognate of the meaning of mark-marca that refers to a writing or signal to indicate something.
  • Letter – This word also can be a true cognate of the word “letra” as on the letters that make up a word, but a false cognate for the word “carta” which is a letter that we mail through the postal service.
  • To introduce – A true cognate for the verb “introducir” meaning to get something inside a place, or to start a topic, but it is not a true cognate in for the verb “presentar” as when you meet a person.
  • Sentence – It is a true cognate of the word “sentencia” in the judicial sense of the word. However, it is wrongly taken as a cognate of “enunciado” which is a sentence as a grammatical piece of writing with a subject and a verb.
  •  Sympathetic – a false cognate for the word “simpático” which means funny, nice and likable.

Being aware of these “false friends” will prevent you from using a word incorrectly. Hopefully, this will allow you to avoid any awkward situation; such as, one of my fellow Spanish teacher’s student, a tall and strong American football player, who was presenting his Spanish project constantly saying “estoy muy embarazado” (I’m very pregnant) when trying to say he was very embarrassed. Beware of false cognates! Do not forget, all that glitters is not gold or as we say in Spanish “no todo lo que brilla es oro”.

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