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Spanish-English False Friends: Be Careful When Using These Spanish Words!

Spanish-English false friends are words that sound or look similar, even though they mean very different things in English and Spanish. This makes them harder to learn as you need to remember that although they sound similar to other words they are not similar in meaning, and memorize the actual meanings for them. Learning to separate them from the words that sound familiar may be the hardest part.

The Spanish language derives from the “Vulgar Latin”, a language that was spoken in the Middle Ages. As you may know, many English words are loanwords – a word adopted from a foreign language with little or no modification. These words are normally the opposite of false friends. Some of these loanwords are graffiti, model and terrace – in Spanish: grafiti, modelo and terraza.

Types of False Friends

False friends fall into four different types:

  • Words that sound similar but mean very different things.
  • Words that look similar but have different meanings.
  • Words that have been borrowed from the English language but do not mean the same things once translated.
  • Words that have similar roots and were developed in the same way, but have different meanings.

Examples of Spanish-English false friends

Words that Sound Similar, but Mean Different Things

  • Librería: bookstore (not library). The Spanish word for ‘library’ is biblioteca.
  • Constipado: to have a cold (not to be constipated). The Spanish word for ‘constipated’ is estreñido.
  • Lectura: reading (not lecture). The Spanish word for ‘lecture’ is conferencia.
  • Actual: current (not actual). The Spanish word for ‘actual’ is real.
  • Balde: bucket (not bald). The Spanish word for ‘bald’ is calvo.
  • Bigote: moustache (not bigot). The Spanish word for ‘bigot’ is intolerante.
  • Casualidad: coincidence (not casualty). The Spanish word for ‘casualty’ is víctima.
  • Colegio: high school (not college). The Spanish word for ‘college’ is universidad.

Each of these words sounds similar when spoken, which can be difficult when beginning to learn Spanish. When someone is speaking quickly, or at a regular speed, many of these can easily be confused, and their different meanings can change the tone and meaning of the conversation.

When learning to speak a new language, it is important to pronounce words clearly and to convey meaning with body language where appropriate. Those who are teaching others a new language should begin speaking slowly and increase their speed little by little to ensure that the differences can be easily heard and the correct meaning is conveyed.

Words that Look Similar, but Mean Different Things

  • Bizarro: dashing (not bizarre). The Spanish word for ‘bizarre’ is extraño.
  • Bombero: firefighter (not bomber). The Spanish word for ‘bomber’ is bombardero.
  • Campo: countryside (not camp). The Spanish word for ‘camp’ is campamento.
  • Carpeta: folder (not carpet). The Spanish word for ‘carpet’ is alfombra.
  • Cita: appointment (not city). The Spanish word for ‘city’ is ciudad.
  • Codo: elbow (not code). The Spanish word for ‘code’ is código.

Each of these words looks similar to its false friend when written and read, but their meanings are different. It is easy to confuse them which can change the meaning of an entire sentence, or even a whole paragraph, and this makes learning to read a second language difficult.

When learning to read in Spanish, it can help to keep a dictionary nearby and to look up any words that seem out of place or you are unsure of, as well as gaining clarity through the context and surrounding words. Often the meaning can be easier to determine by reading the whole sentence, as well as the sentence before and after the one with the confusing word, and considering what other word would make sense in that space. This can help to discover what the writer means to say and become clear on the meaning of the word. This can be a more effective way of learning than memorizing each word individually.

Words Borrowed from English, but Mean Different Things Once Translated

  • Gripe: flu (not gripe). The Spanish word for ‘gripe’ is cólico.
  • Complexión: physique, constitution (not complexion). The Spanish word for ‘complexion’ is tez.
  • Recolectar: to gather (not to recollect). The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to recollect’ is recordar.

Each of these words has been taken from the English language and put to use in Spanish with a different meaning.

However, remember that in Spanish many words were borrowed from English but maintained their meaning. For example: airbag, backup, camping, email, gag, iceberg, modem, parking, picnic, ring, shorts, windsurfing, zoo, etc.

Words with Shared Roots, but Mean Different Things

  • Preservativo: condom (not preservative). The Spanish word for ‘preservative’ is conservante.
  • Asistir: to attend an event (not to assist) The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to assist’ is ayudar.
  • Contestar: to answer (not to contest). The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to contest’ is disputar.
  • Estar embarazada: to be pregnant (not to be embarrassed). The Spanish translation of the expression ‘to be embarrassed’ is tener vergüenza.
  • Molestar: to bother (not to molest). The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to molest’ is abusar sexualmente.
  • Realizar: to complete something (not to realize). The Spanish translation of the verb ‘to realize’ is darse cuenta.

Additionally, many words have been taken directly from Latin and included in both English and Spanish, and they share the same meanings as well. These words are NOT false friends. For example: admirar (to admire), civil (civil), debatir (to debate), emerger (to emerge), impulso (impulse), mediocre (mediocre), perfume (perfume), simple (simple), usar (to use) or virus (virus).

How Did Spanish-English False Friends Occur?

Spanish and English are both widely used languages that have several things in common. As Spanish evolved from Latin it contains many similarities to the Latin language, and English was developed from several languages with many words that are rooted in Latin as well. This common language that they each developed around, in different measures, has led to them having several similar sounds, and some variations of the same root word will look very similar to each other even when they mean very different things.

Though this has led to confusion for those who speak either English or Spanish and are attempting to learn the other, it has also created many words that are similar in spelling and sound that do mean the same thing, and this makes it even harder to know which false friends are and which are not.

In addition, many words are the same in both English and Spanish but have also been taken from other languages entirely. There are many words that have been taken from Greek (amnesia, drama, gas, panorama, sepia, etc.). Throughout history, many languages have borrowed from each other and this has led to both a lot of overlap of words, but also of many words that appear or sound similar but have very different meanings, causing confusion and even embarrassment when the wrong word is chosen.

 How to Use Spanish-English False Friends Correctly

To ensure that you are using each of these words correctly, it is often necessary to memorize them all. This can be overwhelming, but it can be done through watching for cues and using them more often. While straight memorization can seem difficult, once the words are being used they will be easier to remember and will naturally come to you when you need them.

When using loaned words they can feel familiar and safe and can allow you to build your language faster, so use them when you can but be sure to pronounce well and use them appropriately. Those that have similar sounds to English will also be easier to remember than others and can make it feel more familiar, improving the flow of sentences.

Guest post by Valeria Biancalani
Valeria is the founder of Blablalang (, a language school that offers online Spanish lessons ( with native and qualified Spanish tutors.

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