Spanish Language Blog

False Cognates in Spanish Posted by on Oct 9, 2007 in Spanish Vocabulary


If it has ever happened to you that you rattle off what you think is a perfectly correct sentence in Spanish, only to have the other person just look at you, head cocked to the side with a bewildered look on his or her face, you are not alone! You may have just fallen into the very common trap of the false cognate, also called a false friend: a foreign word that looks or sounds deceptively similar to a word
in English, but whose meaning is entirely different.

I learned to be careful of false cognates the hard way: through personal experience. When I first studied in Mexico in high school, I told my host family “Estoy tan embarazada!” wishing to express my embarrassment over getting sick to my stomach my first night in their home. In fact, I had just informed them that I was “so pregnant”. Years later I saw that my Spanish students made this same mistake all the time.

The following is a partial list
of the most common false cognates to watch out for. Make your own list and add
to it each time you encounter a new one. This will keep you aware of the
pitfalls, and help you avoid misunderstandings.


Spanish word

We think it means…

It really means… We mean to say…
actualmente actually currently, at this moment de hecho, en realidad
atender to attend (a meeting) to attend to someone, to help or serve them (in a store: Have you been helped?) asistir
asistir to assist to attend (a meeting) ayudar
carpeta carpet folder alfombra
cigarro cigar cigarette puro
colegio college high school universidad
embarazada embarrassed pregnant tener vergüenza/ estar avergonzada
éxito exit success salida
largo Large Long
librería library bookstore biblioteca
parientes parents relatives padres
realizar To realize To achieve, to fulfill darse cuenta de
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