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False Friends and cognates: not really the same in Spanish

false friends, false cognates

As in most languages, there are words that look the same but they have a completely different meaning. It also happens between Spanish and English, you can find words that look and sound similar but their meaning is totally different or opposite. They are known as false friends and we have a few in Spanish that you might want to check carefully.

In following  table you can will see some false friends. In the first column there are English words followed by the Spanish meaning and in the third column you find what makes us doubt.

“False friends” and cognates

Cognates are words with a common etymological origin, and they can sound or be written in a similar way in both languages, although they’re not always identical. For example, the word “night” (in Spanish: noche) is a cognate in several languages, and look or sound alike in these languages (for instance, “Nacht” in Germna, “noite” in Portuguese or “nuit” in French.

Due to the natural complexity of languages, some cognates have similar modern forms, but different etymologies. For example, the verb “haber” in Spanish seems to have a common origin with the English verb “to have”, but although they look similar, they have completely different etymologies. These words are called “false cognates“.

So, after we realize the difference between “false friends” and cognates, we have now FOUR different possibilities:

Inglés / English Español/ Spanish Lo que nos confunde/ what makes us doubt
Actually En realidad Actualmente:nowadays
Agenda Orden del día “Agenda:
diary”
Apology Disculpa “Apología:
defense of”
Arena Estadio “Arena:
sand”
Argument Discusión “Argumento:
plot”
Assist Ayudar “Asistir:
attend”
Avocado Aguacate Abogado:lawyer/attorney
Bland Soso “Blando:
soft”
Camp Campamento “Campo:
field”
Career Carrera profesional “Carrera (universitaria):
degree”
Carpet Moqueta “Carpeta:
file”
Casualty Víctima Casualidad:coincidence
Commodity Producto “Comodidad:
comfort”
Compliment Piropo Complemento:accessory
Conductor Director de orquesta “Conductor:
Driver”
Constipation Estreñimiento “Constipado:
cold”
Currant Grosella “Currante:
worker”
Deception Engaño Decepción:disappointment
Dessert Postre “Desierto:
desert”
Dinner Cena “Dinero:
money”
Discussion Debate “Discusión:
argument”
Disgust Asco “Disgusto:
displease”
Diversion Desviación “Diversión:
fun”
Embarrassed Avergonzado “Embarazada:
pregnant”
Eventually A largo plazo Eventualmente:occasionally
Excite Emocionar “Excitar:
arouse”
Exit Salida “Éxito:
success”
Fabric Tejido “Fábrica:
factory”
Facilities Instalaciones “Facilidad:
ease/ability”
Jam Mermelada “Jamón:
ham”
Large Grande “Largo:
long”
Lecture Conferencia “Lectura:
reading”
Library Biblioteca “Librería:
bookshop”
Misery Tristeza “Miseria:
poverty”
Molest Agredir “Molestar:
to bother”
Once Una vez “11:
eleven”
Parents Padres “Parientes:
relatives”
Preservative Conservante Preservativo/Condón:condom
Relative Pariente “Relativo:
relative”
Resume Reanudar “Resumir:
summarize”
Rope Cuerda “Ropa:
clothes”
Sanity Cordura “Sanidad:
health”
Sensible Sensato “Sensible:
sensitive”
Sensitive Sensible “Sensitivo:
sensible”
Spectacles Gafas “Espectáculo:
show”
Support Sostener “Soportar:
put up with”
Sympathy Compasión “Simpatía:
friendliness”
To realise Darse cuenta “Realizar:
make”
Topic Tema “Tópico:
cliché”
To record Grabar “Recordar:
to remember”

Download table in PDF

a) True friends / true cognates

Words with a common etymology and a nearly identical modern form, like the words “bar” or “actor”. Please check our lesson about true friends.

b) True friends / false cognates

They have no etymological common origin, but they have similar meanings in modern forms. Sometimes it’s just out of coincidence, sometimes because they’ve been “borrowed” from other languages. In Spanish we have several words adapted from English, such as “suéter” (sweater), type of cloth.

c) False friends / true cognates

Words with the same etymology, but for some reason they have different meanings in modern forms. It’s the case of the word embarrassed, that in English means “ashamed”, but in Spanish means “pregnant” (embarazada).

d) False friends / false cognates

Words with no etymological relation but that look similar. That’s what people call false friends in the first place. For example, “aviso” is similar to “advice”, but it means warning. “Advice” in Spanish is “consejo”. Most words in this lessons belong to this category.

Exercise: false friends

Exercise: False friends in Spanish

Mark the expression in Spanish that corresponds to the English word


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