Fun with “falsos amigos”

After four posts on the subjective (and all the collateral cerebral damage caused by writing them), I thought I’d give us a break and focus on something a un poco más ligero. Not to neglect this all-important subject, but there are tons of other aspectos of the language worth talking about. I have in my possession an old book, published in 1945, called “Embarrassing Moments in Spanish,” which discusses the words which we English speakers are most likely to get wrong when speaking Spanish. Some of these are quite amusing and I thought I’d offer up a few, as well as some which were personally challenging for me and which, at times, caused me great vergüenza. Perhaps you can relate:

Actualmente: As English speakers, we throw the word “actually” around as though there were no other words to say “really” or “in fact” in our language. The Old English word was actually forsooth, but it seems no one cares for that one these days. Spanish has the word actualmente but it means “presently” or “currently.” It is super weird to drop it at the beginning of every sentence as we do in English (imagine: “Presently, I love to sew; Presently, my boyfriend is a real jerk; Presently, I feel like grabbing a bite, etc.”). English is actually the language which deformed this word, as it retains its original meaning in all the Latin-derived languages. That said, when you want to say “actually” in Spanish, use en realidad or de verdad instead.

Balde: Most any English speaker would think this means “bald,” but the actual meaning of these word is “bucket.” It’s also part of the expression en balde, which means “vain” (and is more commonly said “en vano”). I, of course, did not know this when I once asked the barber to leave me balde (yes, I have a hair loss problem). His perplexed expression forced me to refer to the dictionary, which gave me calvo as the word for “bald.” That still didn’t get me the haircut I wanted. It turns out that calvo refers to what nature does to your head, whereas pelón is (at least in Mexico) the word used for  a“shaved head.” Be careful with these falsos amigos when at the barber shop, or you might even end up with a bucket on your head.

Caliente: Yes, this means “hot,” but do not say “¡Estoy caliente!” to express your discomfort with the heat. This expression means to be sexually excited. I remember walking down the street in Puebla, Mexico with three underdressed gringo women who loudly proclaimed their horniness to whistling passersby. The correct expression is “¡Tengo calor!”

Constipado: First time travelers to Latin America are not likely to use this word, as the opposite is generally experienced. That said, constipado is actually a synonym of resfriado, which means “to have a cold.” You’ll get prescribed the wrong stuff if you use this word at a doctor’s office. For the English “constipated,” use estreñido.

Embarazado: This is generally the first false cognate which English speakers learn, since we’re often inclined to express our embarrassment when speaking a new language. I’ve never made this mistake but have heard many do so. The word embarazada means “to be pregnant” and cannot be used in the masculine unless you’re part of a Chinese genome experiment. It is wholly incorrect to say “Estoy embarazado” when you feel embarrassed… the correct phrase is “Tengo vergüenza.” That said, the word embarazoso does exist but vergonzoso is far more common.

Excitado: Here’s one which I used for months before anyone corrected me. Technically, excitado does translate as “excited,” but in daily speech it means “I’m horny.” Your Spanish-speaking interlocutors, however, will generally understand and tolerate what you mean, unless they’re secret language policemen or perverse-minded teenagers. In the latter case you’ll be giggled and gestured at without any help or explanation from the dictionary. It is better to say “Estoy emocionado” when something provokes joy in you and leave excitado for only certain contexts… you know what I mean.

Grosería: More than once a gringo has asked “¿Dónde está la grosería?”, thinking, of course, that they would be directed to the nearest grocery store. The word grosería, however, refers to a naughty or rude word such as a few I’ve already expounded on. A person who is grosero is an inconsiderate jerk. The correct term for “grocery store” varies from country to country, but in Mexico it’s abarrotería or tienda de abarrotes. You’ll also hear almacén or tienda de comestibles, the latter of which is common in Spain.

Intoxicado: After I realized that this word didn’t really mean “intoxicated,” I wondered how English managed to apply it only to drunks. The word toxic forms part of the word and applies to any dangerous substance which adversely affects the body. A better equivalent would be “poisoned” and it can refer to food, venom or any dangerous chemicals which get into the blood. For better or worse, alcohol is not universally treated as a toxic substance but rather as one to consumed with varying degrees of restraint. The formal way of saying “intoxicated” is ebrio or embriagado, but you’re more likely to hear borracho, cuete or pedo if in the company of inebriated Mexicans.

Molestar: Here’s one that English speakers are afraid to use and one which Spanish speakers often embarrass themselves with in our language. The word molestar has no sexual connotation nor is it taboo to use in normal conversation. It simply means “to bother” or “to annoy.”  It is so common, in fact, that after speaking Spanish for months or years, you’ll forget that the English phrase “It really molests me when it rains” is not a natural or polite way of translating Me molesta cuando llueve. In Spanish, the word “molest” is rendered abusar sexualmente.

Ropa: Here’s an easy one to confuse but also to correct. La ropa refers to “clothes” and is never said in the plural. Of course, you can be forgiven for thinking that it means “rope.” The actual word in Spanish for this is soga but, like almost word, it has regional counterparts. In Mexico a “rope” is sometimes referred to as a riata. With respect to “clothes,” you’ll find that indumentaria, vestido, ropaje, vestuario, atuendo, prenda and atavío are all close and common synonyms, but there’s nothing resembling the English word. In colloquial speech, it’s sometimes common to say trapos (“rags”), but if you want to compliment somebody I’d choose one of the other options.

I’m sure that, if you’ve advanced to a certain point in your studies, you know most of this already. That said, you might enjoy this quaint little book from yesteryear which is surprisingly quite relevant today:

Feel free to share your falsos amigos stories below… I know we all have them 😊

2 comments on Fun with “falsos amigos”

  1. Great fun with falsos amigos. Great examples. Once, back when I was first learning Mandarin, I was living in rural western China and at a bar one night and the group I was with kept saying: 那个 (nèige) and I just thought that either they were big fans of old school hiphop or that they were just gratuitously racist. Later I found out that 那个 (nèige) is just a filler, like umm or ahh in English, and that they were only stalling and that I was about to be Shanghai-ed and involuntarily entered into a Chinese genome project where nine months henceforth I would be giving birth and be the proud papa to triplets. Hybrid panda-human triplets. Crazy times those were. Stay out of Chinese bars.

  2. When I initially commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the same comment. Is there a way you can remove me from that service? Thank you! Drucy Fletcher Sulamith

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