10 Embarrassing False Cognates in Spanish

10 Embarrassing False Cognates in Spanish

When you come across a text in Spanish containing the words actor, animal, central, chocolate, editorial, familiar or oriental, you are likely to come to the accurate realization that Spanish and English have a lot more in common than we give them credit for! However...

False cognates - or, as language learners like to call them, "false friends" - are words that are extremely similar in writing (and even pronunciation) between languages, but which actually have a very different meaning.

This can cause you to go through some pretty awkward moments in which you believe you are expressing an idea clearly, but the listener is getting either very confused or very offended...

Beware of the sneaky false friends that appear to be trustworthy, easy-going and reliable, only to embarrass you when you count on them the most.

Oh, and speaking of embarrassment...

Wrong type of announcement?

10. Pregnant or Embarrassed?

Embarazada vs Embarrassed

Confessing your feelings of embarrassement to your Spanish-speaking friends may come across as a completely different type of announcement if you trust this sneaky false cognate!

Embarazada actually means "pregnant" in Spanish, not "embarrassed". The word for that would be avergonzado(a). Here are some examples of how to use this false friend correctly:

  • "¡Muchas felicidades, estás embarazada!" ("Congratulations, you are pregnant!")
  • "Quieres saber si estás realmente embarazada?" ("Do you want to know if you are really pregnant?")
  • "¿Puedo practicar running si estoy embarazada?" ("Can I run if I am pregnant?")
  • "Estoy embarazada." ("I am pregnant.")

Coincidence or bad consequences?

9. A Very Dark Coincidence

Casualidad vs Casualty

So your Spanish-speaking friend said something happened by "casualidad" and you are left wondering who got injured...or even killed?!

Could it be that you thought this conversation was about dating and it was actually about an accident?

Casualidad means "chance" or "coincidence" in Spanish. It is often used in the expression por casualidad, meaning "by chance" or "as it happens". Here are some ways you can incorporate this expression into your conversations:

  • "Me gustaria invitarla, pero parece que por casualidad está de vacaciones en alguna parte". ("I would like to invite her, but as it happens, it seems she is on vacation somewhere.")
    "No es por casualidad que Eslovenia, Eslovaquia y Lituania son mis países favoritos." ("It is not by accident/a coincidence that Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania are my favorite countries.")
  • "Todo esto pasó por casualidad!" ("All of this happened by chance!")
  • "Nada pasa por casualidad." ("Nothing happens by coincidence").

If, por casualidad, you want to refer to actual casualties, the right word in Spanish would be baja for both men and women (especially in times of war, this word is likely to mean "killed") or herido(a), meaning "wounded".

Uh-oh, wrong problem!

8. Is it a Cold or...Your Intestines?

Constipado vs Constipated

Uh-oh, seems like your Spanish friend just got too comfortable with you. Why would you care about the constipation they had to suffer through these last few days?

Well, much to your relief, you will be happy to know being constipado in European Spanish means...to have a cold! The word for actual constipation would be estreñimiento. A synonym for having a cold in Spanish is also resfriado, so you are likely to hear one or the other.

Here are some ways you can talk about your cold (hopefully, not any time soon!):

  • "Estoy constipado, que puedo tomar?" ("I have a cold, what can I take?")
  • "¿Tengo gripe o solo estoy constipado?" ("Do I have the flu or do I only have a cold?")
  • "Estoy constipado. ¿Puedo hacer deporte?" ("I have a cold, can I do sports?")

Pay attention - this word is only a false friend in Spain! When it comes to most Latin American speakers, estar constipado does have the same meaning as the English "being constipated". Be mindful of the person you are talking to, and stay alert for two potentially completely different meanings.

Context is everything!

A serious distinction.

7. Fifty Shades of Annoying

Molestar vs Molest

False cognates just got serious.

If you ever hear a Spanish-speaking person conjugating the verb molestar in any shape or form and doing it in a casual tone, know there is no reason to feel shocked, worried or lost. The meaning is absolutely different from the English "to molest", which would translate to Spanish as abusar sexualmente, or acosar (to harass).

Molestar will be used on a regular basis in Spanish as "to bother", "to annoy".

Here are some examples of how Spanish speakers could use this word:

  • "¿Te molestan los mosquitos por la noche?" ("Are mosquitos annoying you at night?")
  • "Ese ruído me molesta." ("That noise annoys/irritates/bothers me.")
  • "¿Por qué estas chicas me molestan tanto?" ("Why do these girls annoy/bother me so much?")
  • "Disculpe que la moleste, pero..." (Formal, speaking to a female listener - "Sorry to distub you, but...")

Similar, and yet so different.

6. Are You Trying or Pretending?

Pretender vs Pretend

This one is a classic!

Imagine you are spending some quality time with your Spanish-speaking crush, when they turn to you and say "Yo pretendo amarte todos los días...". Insulted that somebody pretended to love you, you grab your bag and walk away. Except...

Pretender actually means "to intend", not "to fake" something. Here are some useful examples!

  • "Hay un secreto para vivir feliz con la persona amada: no pretender modificarla." ("There is a secret for living happily with your loved one: not intending on changing them")
  • "No pretendo ser mejor que nadie". ("I don't intend on being better than anyone else.")

Family members vs parents.

5. Related, But How Related?

Pariente vs Parent

If you have ever been confronted with a Spanish-speaking friend who seems to have dozens of mothers and fathers, that's probably because they have identified their family members as parientes.

And that is exactly what parientes means - family members. Not parents!

  • "Todos mis parientes son de aquí también!" ("All of my relatives are also from here!")
  • "Estos son mis parientes próximos." ("These are my close relatives")
  • "Solo había invitado a los amigos y parientes más allegados" ("He/she had only invited his/her closest friends and relatives")

Next time you talk about your family in Spanish, make sure you choose this word to refer to your relatives - especially if you cannot remember particular vocabulary about each family member. It's a great way to still get the message across!

Rope as clothing?

4. Dressed in Rope?

Ropa vs Rope

Unless you are secretly Lady Gaga on a particularly creative day, you would probably not dress in rope for a normal working day. But this false friend might get you to doubt your Spanish-speaking friends' fashion choices...

Of course, everything will change when you realize that ropa does not mean "rope", but "clothing"! So how can we incorporate this useful false cognate without sounding like fools? Here you go:

  • "Mi ropa no huele a limpio..." ("My clothes do not smell clean...")
  • "Tu ropa es muy bonita!" ("Your clothes are very pretty!")
  • ¿Qué estilo de ropa va mejor con tu personalidad? ("What clothing style best matches your personality?")

(Hey, pssst! Are you into fashion and Spanish? Check out these underrated Spanish fashion brands that locals seem to love!)

Soap: new dietary choice?

3. Eating Delicious Soap

Sopa vs Soap

That awkward moment when somebody tells you to eat soap in Spanish. Could this be a metaphor?

Not really. Sopa, as you may have come to realize, means "soup" in Spanish, not "soap"! The word for actual soap would be jabón. So find your inspiration in the expressions below, before you start serving hygiene products as a gourmet type of dinner!

  • "Quiero hacer sopa de marisco." ("I want to cook (lit. make) seafood soup")
  • "Una sopa de legumbres, por favor." ("A vegetable soup, please.")
  • "La sopa me quedó salada." ("My soup came out too salty.")

Supporting somebody or standing them?

2. Can You Stand It?

Soportar vs Support

Next time you decide to help a close friend and let them know you support them, make sure you do not translate that directly into soportar...you may be insulting the listener without realizing!

Soportar means to stand something or somebody. To be able to put up with it/him/her with a certain amount of effort. To tolerate something or somebody. Do you see where this is going and why it could go wrong? Get inspired by the examples below!

  • "No soporto a mi profesor." ("I can't stand my teacher.")
  • "Como soportar a tu jefe: guía oficial." ("How to stand your boss: official guide")
  • "No soporto la mediocridad." ("I can't stand mediocrity")


1. Sending Lots of Envy!

Enviar vs Envy

You might think your Spanish-speaking friend has had a bit too much to drink when he/she claims to "envy postcards". Don't worry, your friend is just fine!

The reality is that enviar does not mean "to envy"...it means "to send". If you were to express how much you envy somebody (or how much somebody envies you!), the right choice in Spanish would be envidiar.

Ready? Let's take a look at some examples:

  • "Envidio a mi pareja". ("I envy my partner")
  • "¿Por qué siento envidia de mi propio novio?" ("Why do I envy my own boyfriend?")
  • "Mi mejor amiga me envidia" ("My best friend (female) is envious of me")

Notice that we must place an "a" in between the verb and the person we actually envy, unlike what happens with English.

Ready to ditch those false friends that let you down?

Start now! It is a great idea to write a couple of sentences with these new words, and try to put them in context. Try thinking of a situation in which you would use them, and stay relevant to your own lifestyle and things you would typically say.

Organize a short study session, and remember - choose your cognates wisely!