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What's in a word?
Professor Michael Hoey
considers the consequences
of changes in lexicography

Language Interference
False Friends between
Spanish and English
Read about cognates, false friends
and unreliable friends

Focus on Language
Awareness: Word formation

Common processes of
word formation in English
UK version  US version

New word of the month
Compounds and blends

Top Tips for the CD-ROMs
Using the CD-ROM for
teaching collocations



False Friends between Spanish and English
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on Language Interference

• Similarities in the lexicons of Spanish and English
• How do cognates become false or unreliable cognates?
• Utterly False Friends
• Unreliable Friends
• Differences in intensity of meaning
• Conclusion
• Further reading
• Next in the series

Similarities in the lexicons of Spanish and English

As many books and websites for learners of Spanish quite rightly point out, it is easy to see the similarity between Spanish and English words if you train yourself to make certain orthographical conversions. Nouns which end in -ncia in Spanish will often have an equivalent which ends in -nce in English; adjectives which end in -oso in Spanish will often end in -ous in English; verbs which end in -ificar in Spanish will often end in -ify in English; and adverbs that end in -almente will often end in -ally in English.

This is certainly a useful starting point which will reassure and encourage any newcomer to either language. But unguarded application of these guidelines could lead to an awful lot of confusion. Similarities in appearance are not always reflected in similarities of meaning. While the Spanish nouns inteligencia and distancia correspond in meaning to their English cognates, conferencia means the same as English conference, but also means lecture or address. 'Dar una conferencia' means to give a lecture. The Spanish adjectives famoso and viscoso have the same meanings as their English cognates. However, laborioso can mean laborious but can also be used to describe a person, and, in that case, means hard-working or industrious. Simplificar means to simplify, but gratificar means both to gratify and to reward or tip. 'Se gratificará' means 'a reward is offered'. And while probablemente does mean probably, eventualmente means by chance, fortuitously or possibly, depending on circumstances, and actualmente means not actually, but at the moment, currently, or nowadays. These last two very troublesome false friends were discussed in the May issue of MED Magazine.

So, you can trust some of the cognates some of the time but you can't trust all of the cognates all of the time. The words are clearly related but their meanings are not reliably aligned. When they are not aligned or are only partially aligned, they are False Friends.


How do cognates become false or unreliable cognates?

One crucial key to this problem is that Spanish and English got a large proportion of their individual lexicons from the same source — Latin. Spanish, being a Romance language, descended from Latin, while English, though a Germanic language, borrowed heavily from Latin or languages descended from Latin, including French and Spanish, at various periods throughout its history, particularly in the Renaissance period, when the vocabulary of English doubled as a result of a huge influx of classically-derived words.

It is an important characteristic of linguistic borrowing that once a word is 'borrowed' into a language, it becomes the possession of that language and its meanings can be changed to suit that language. Even though a word may be borrowed with its meaning intact, with time, words that once meant the same thing in the languages of both borrower and lender drift apart, meanings are dropped, new nuances are added; the words take on an individual life of their own. For example, embarrassed and embarazada came, ultimately, from the same root. Italian imbarrare, meaning 'to surround with bars' gave rise to imbarrazzare, which became French embarrasser and Spanish embarazar, meaning 'to hamper or impede', and these in turn passed into English — embarrassed. The original meaning of embarrassed is partly retained in the more old-fashioned sense of 'in a difficult situation' and is mainly used to talk euphemistically about financial difficulties. Feeling awkward or disconcerted is now the most frequent sense in English. Meanwhile, the Spanish verb embarazar has retained the original hamper or obstruct sense, but has the additional meaning of to make a woman pregnant. The adjective which is derived from this has only the pregnant sense. Embarazoso is the word to use to translate the English adjective embarrassed.

Despite their superficial similarity and their shared heritage, the meanings of embarazada and embarrassed have become subtly different. Another example is the cognate verb pair English record and Spanish recordar. Both came ultimately from Latin recordari, the basic meaning of which was 'to go over in one's mind, to remember'. In Spanish the verb retained this basic meaning. The sense of 'to put something down in writing or some other permanent form' came into English from Latin via Old French. If you want to translate the verb record into Spanish, you need to use registrar, grabar or inscribir, depending on the circumstances.


Utterly False Friends

Here are just a few more examples of cognate pairs which, like embarrassed and embarazada, now have completely different meanings in Spanish and English:

English word English
Spanish word Spanish meaning
library a collection of books librería a bookshop
constipation inability to empty your bowels constipación the common cold
bizarre strange, odd bizarro handsome, brave
success positive achievement suceso an event, incident
deception the act of tricking someone decepción disappointment
exit a way out éxito a result; success
educated having had a good education educado polite; cultivated
sympathise to understand someone's problems simpatizar to hit it off


Unreliable Friends

Some Spanish words have all the meanings of their English cognates, but can lull the learner into a false sense of security because they also have additional meanings all of their own. In the list below, the Spanish words are given alongside their English cognates. The English translations of their additional meanings are given on the right.

Spanish English cognate additional meanings in English
admirar admire to surprise, astonish
asistir assist to attend, be present
dirección direction address for correspondence; management
historia history story, tale
discusion discussion argument
genial genial inspired, brilliant
ignorar ignore to not know, be unaware of
morbido morbid soft, delicate
frase phrase sentence
villa villa small town; borough
virtual virtual potential, possible, future; apparent
compromiso compromise an obligation, commitment, engagement
exacto exact punctual
informal informal incorrect; unreliable, untrustworthy


Differences in intensity of meaning

Sometimes there is a difference in nuance or intensity of meaning between a cognate word pair that can be easy to overlook. This can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings. Spanish molestar does not have any sexual connotation as the English verb molest now most often has and it rarely involves violence. It is usually best translated into English as to bother, annoy, or be a nuisance. Conversely, the Spanish verb violar more often has sexual connotations than the English cognate violate. Whereas English notorious means 'famous for something bad', Spanish notorio has no such negative connotation, and means, simply, famous. Spanish inferior can be used to describe a subordinate in the workplace and yet has no negative connotation as it would in the same context in English.

With some cognates, the English word is narrower in meaning than the Spanish. While in English you have to be a mother or father to be a parent, in Spanish any relative can be a pariente. In English, only alcoholic drink can induce intoxication (in the literal sense), in Spanish intoxicación means poisoning in general, regardless of the substance that induces it. Spanish propaganda has a broader meaning than its English counterpart and can mean advertising in general. English idiom describes a particular kind of expression or a particular style in language, art etc, but Spanish idioma means, quite simply, language. While in English a reunion is a meeting of people who haven't seen each other for a while, Spanish reunión can be a meeting or gathering of any kind.

I have found few examples of the opposite situation — where the English word has a broader meaning than its Spanish cognate. One explanation for this may be that though a word may have come to each language from Latin, in the case of English it would have arrived later and, quite often, via another language (e.g. Old French). Because English is a Germanic language, it would often already have a word or words of its own to cover some of the meanings of the Latinate word, so the lexical gap it was borrowed to fill would be narrower. For example, English already had the Middle English (12th—15th century) word meeting when it borrowed reunion from Latin via French in the early 17th century, so the gap that it came to fill was the need for a word for meeting again — re-meeting, rather than the more general range of meanings it had in the language it was borrowed from. This is speculation on my part, but it highlights once more the essentially pragmatic nature of linguistic borrowing that has been seen throughout this series of articles on language interference.



From the great vocabulary explosion of the Renaissance period, when words of Latin origin were soaked up in their thousands by English, to the present day in the United States, where, as a result of close geographical contact, words from Latin American Spanish are pouring into American English at a rate that alarms language purists, all linguistic contact results in an exchange of words, quite literally. Words are adopted to denote new phenomena, like tacos and burritos, or at the dictates of fashion, or because of an inability of languages to keep up with the rate of introduction of new words by creating their own, as is the case now with English Internet vocabulary in Spanish, or to fill other lexical gaps, refine nuances, add new emphasis etc. The words, once exchanged, may remain similar in appearance, but their meanings may be as different as chalk and cheese, or, even more confusingly, chalk and calcium carbonate.


Further reading

The Spanish Language, by Mark Little at
Articles on False Friends at
John Ayto, Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins (Bloomsbury, 1990)


Next in the series

In the next issue I will look beyond individual words to other areas of language which can cause learners problems as a result of language interference.