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Obvious ... But Wrong

False Friends Often Lead to Mistakes

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University student reading in classroom
Tom Merton/Caiaimage/Getty Images
clotheslines

Cuerdas para la ropa. (Clotheslines. Note that "ropa" refers not to the the ropes but to clothing, making "ropa" a false friend.)

Photo by Srgpicker; licensed via Creative Commons.

Learning Spanish vocabulary can seem so easy: Constitutición means "constitution," nación means "nation," and decepción means "deception," right?

Not quite. True, most words that end in -ción can be translated into English by changing the suffix to "-tion." And the pattern holds true for the first two words listed above (although constitución refers to how something is constituted more often than does the English word, which usually refers to a political document). But una decepción is a disappointment, not a deception.

Spanish and English have literally thousands of cognates, words that are basically the same in both languages, having the same etymology and similar meanings. But combinations such as decepción and "deception" are so-called false cognates — known more precisely as "false friends" or falsos amigos — word pairs that look like they might mean the same thing but don't. They can be confusing, and if you make the mistake of using them in speech or writing you're likely to be misunderstood.

Following is a list of some of the most common false friends — some of the ones you're mostly likely to come across when reading or listening to Spanish:

  • Actual: This adjective (or its corresponding adverb, actualmente) indicates that something is current, at the present time. Thus the day's hot topic might be referred to as un tema actual. If you wish to say something is actual (as opposed to imaginary), use real (which also can mean "royal") or verdadero.
     
  • Asistir: Means to attend or to be present. Asisto a la oficina cada día, I go to the office daily. To say "to assist," use ayudar, to help.
     
  • Atender: Means to serve or to take care of, to attend to. If you're talking about attending a meeting or a class, use asistir.
     
  • Basamento: You won't run across this word often, but it's the base of a column, sometimes called a plinth. If you want to visit a basement, go down to el sótano.
     
  • Billón: 1,000,000,000,000. That number is the same as a trillion in American English but a billion in traditional British English. In other words, billón is a cognate in London but a false cognate in New York.
     
  • Bizarro: Somebody's who's this way is brave, not necessarily strange. The English word "bizarre" is conveyed better by extraño or estrafalario.
     
  • Boda: If you go to a wedding or wedding reception, this is what you're going to. A body (as of a person or animal) is most often cuerpo or tronco.
     
  • Campo: Means a field or the country (in the sense of living in the country, not the city). If you're going camping, you'll probably be staying at a campamento or even a camping.
     
  • Carpeta: Although this can refer to a type of table cover, it doesn't have anything to do with carpets. It most often means a file folder (including the virtual kind) or a briefcase. "Carpet" is most often alfombra.
     
  • Complexión: This refers not to your skin, but to one's physiological build (a well-built man is un hombre de complexión fuerte). To speak of skin complexion, use tez or cutis.
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