False Amigos

3amigosIt’s time for another episode of I do not think it means what you think it means, the game we play when the language we’re learning is playing games with us! In our last episode, we met all kinds of words that look the same in both English and German, but which mean very different things. There are lots of false cognate pairs, or false friends, in  English and Spanish as well. Here’s a little list of words that occur in both languages, with identical spelling:

arena, mayor, media, pan, pie, real, red, sin

As Spanish is the language with the second largest number of native speakers (with a total of around 550 million people who speak it as a first or second language*), I’m guessing that many of you will have some familiarity with it. Here are a few pictorial hints to help you with the Spanish end of these words.

TaniaMaria Cabrera

photo by TaniaMaria Cabrera

You may be thinking this, but in Spanish it’s actually this:


The Spanish word arena means sand.

Here’s another:


Where you read mayor, a Spanish speaker gets the concept of major, higher, elder, etc.

  Presented with the word media, you might think social media, or something to do with the news. Surprise!


The Spanish word media is the word for stocking.

Pan might make you think of  baking a cake (even when it’s like this) or perhaps you think of this:

panpipesbut of course in Spanish it’s this:

This is an easy overnight bread, recipe for which will follow at some point.

This is an easy overnight bread, recipe for which will follow at some point.

What do these two have in common?



They’re both papa (la papa and el papa). Add an accent, el papá, and you’ve got Dad.

Now, here’s the kind of pie that gets my attention:

pie top

But in Spanish a pie is a foot.

Real can mean genuine, both in Spanish and in English, but in Spanish it’s also the word for


Red may be something you see when you’re angry, or the classic color of the mid-life crisis car;

red car

if you had your mid-life crisis quite a few decades ago

in Spanish it means  net or network.

Sin is something we can imagine (I decided not to spend time looking for pictures), but in Spanish it means without, something even harder to illustrate.

Misunderstanding cognates can sometimes cause embarrassment:


especially if you use the Spanish word embarazada to describe it, because it has another meaning:


Van Eyck’s portrait of the very pregnant Mrs. Arnolfini and husband

And without further ado, a list of some other false cognates. The list on the left is the Spanish word, on the right is its meaning in English. All of them are unexpected–some have impressive potential to create misunderstanding. I know some of you are native Spanish speakers, and that there’s variation across different countries in how things are said. I’d love to hear from you if you have different experiences with any of these, or if you have a favorite false friend pair that I missed. (I guess that was a little bit of ado.)

actual current
asignatura subject
asistir to attend
bizarro brave, noble
carpeta folder
complexión temperament
compromiso commitment
conductor driver
contestar to answer
culto cultured, refined
decepción disappointment
delito crime
desgracia misfortune
deshonesto indecent, lewd
disgusto annoyance
educado polite
enviar to send
éxito success
firma signature
grabar to save
groseria rudeness
inhabitado uninhabited
introducir to insert
jubilación retirement
largo long
librería bookstore
molestar to annoy
once eleven
realizar to fulfill
recordar to remember
remover to stir
ropa clothing
simpático charming, pleasant
soportar to put up with

Your turn now: what did I miss? What did I get wrong? Which was your favorite?

*Fiddler noted that if you add those who speak English as a second language to the number of  native English speakers, that number knocks Spanish out of 2nd place in the language list. More people speak Spanish as their first language, and many more people speak English than Spanish as their second language. As it happens, Chinese skunks them both, but that’s another post, for another time.

3 thoughts on “False Amigos

  1. Pingback: Lori Notes turns 100 | Lori Notes

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