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An image of a little girl hugging a lion, which is a humourous illustration of false friends.

Five Common “False Friends” Between English and Spanish and Their Histories

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Spanish Grammar History

When I first started learning Spanish, people would joke with me that they could speak Spanish by adding an “-o” to the end of English words to get the correct Spanish word. Words like “correcto” and “perfecto” certainly made me feel like this was true. These words are called cognates, which means they’re spelled very similarly and have the same meaning. The history of why there are so many of these words between English and Spanish is very interesting. The history of why there are so many of these words between English and Spanish is very interesting. It mostly has to do with the fact that Spanish comes directly from Latin, and English borrows a lot of words from French, which also comes directly from Latin.

However, just because English and Spanish have a shared history doesn’t mean that every word that looks the same means the same thing. There are a lot of words that developed independent meanings over hundreds of years that may look alike, but mean different things. Sometimes these differences are slight, but other times, the difference in their meanings can lead to some uncomfortable situations, as you’ll see with this list. There are hundreds, if not thousands of these false cognates, and it’s crucial for Spanish students to learn them. Let’s dive into five extremely common ones and learn a bit about their interesting histories!

Éxito and Exit

In case of an emergency, you’re probably not looking for an éxito… Well, maybe you are, but I would recommend finding the salida, which is an exit before you try to find success, which is what éxito means when translated into English.

Interestingly enough, these two words actually share the same root word. They both come from the Latin word exĭtus, which means to go out but was figuratively used to mean to conclusion or result. Over time, words can often drift in meaning or spelling, which is likely what happened to the Spanish word éxito, which semantically drifted into “positive result”. The English word exit was borrowed from Latin in the 16th Century for use in theater as a way to tell actors to leave the stage.

Carpeta and Carpet

There’s not a lot of sense in covering your floors with carpeta, which means folder, you should instead be looking into alfombra, which means carpet.

The word carpet came into English from the Old French word carpite, which means a heavily decorated cloth. Eventually, carpet came to refer to a bedspread or tablecloth, and finally drifted to its current meaning of floor coverings. The English word for folder comes from Old English faldan or fealdan meaning to bend back over itself.

Alfombra comes from the Arabic word for carpet or rug. Interestingly, the etymology of the word carpeta is a lot less clear. The Royal Academy of Spanish states that it comes from the French word carpette, which actually derives from the English word carpet. Today, carpette in French means rug or doormat. This raises the question of how carpeta came to refer to a folder when the French word that it is derived from refers to a floor covering like a rug or a doormat. In some Latin American countries, carpeta can refer to furniture coverings. Likewise, in Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, carpeta can also refer to a table covering for games. So it may have drifted into meaning some form of covering and perhaps came to mean a covering for paper. Others speculate that the word carpeta actually derives from the Quechua word carpa, which means tent, and perhaps drifted into some meaning like “a tent for papers”.

Embarazada and Embarrassed

Perhaps the most embarrassing thing you can do while in a Spanish-speaking country is tell people you’re embarazada when you aren’t. That’s because embarazada means pregnant, not embarrassed, which is avergonzado.

Similar to éxito and exit, embarazada and embarrassed come from the same root word, which is the Portuguese word embaraçar, meaning “to snarl or to tangle”. Embarrassed came into English through the French word embarrasser, which means “to block”. It’s a fairly easy jump from tangled to blocked to embarrassed since you can probably see how embarrassed might mean something like “blocked by doubt”. Embarazar, which is the verb form of embarazada, means to impregnante someone, but still has a secondary (and extremely infrequently used) meaning of “to block”. This likely came from some sort of euphemism around pregnancy.

Avergonzado is more clear since it derives from the Latin word for shame. Pregnant actually also derives from Latin, but it’s from the word praegnās, which means “with child”. Interestingly enough, praegnās comes from the Latin prefix prae-, which means before, and the root gnā-, which comes from the word gnāscor meaning “to be born”. Gnāscor eventually became the Spanish word nacer.

Advertencia and Advertisement

If you see an advertencia, no one is trying to sell you something. They’re trying to alert you to something. That’s because advertencia refers to a warning, whereas an anuncio is an advertisement.

Like most of the words on this list, advertisement also comes from the same root as advertencia, which is why their meanings are somewhat similar. Advertisement originally came to English from the Old French word avertir (or advertir) which meant to direct someone’s attention to something. In Middle English, it was used to refer to a public notice, often in a newspaper and usually paid for by someone. By the 18th Century CE, the meaning had pretty much drifted to entirely mean a paid public announcement. The Spanish word advertir still retains the meaning of “to draw someone’s attention to something” which is why an advertencia is a warning. Anunico comes from the Latin word meaning “to announce” and can technically refer to any sort of annoucement, including news and advertisements.

Warning, on the other hand, comes from the Old English word warnian meaning “to give notice of impending danger”.

Largo and Large

You might find yourself on a calle larga if you travel to any Spanish-speaking country and may be surprised to learn that the road you’re on isn’t all that large, which would be grande, but rather it’s very long, which is what larga actually means.

Both largo in Spanish and large in English come from the Latin word largus meaning “abundant, copious, plentiful; bountiful, liberal in giving, generous”. The word large entered English through French in the 12th century CE from the word large meaning “wide, broad, and generous”. The modern meaning of “big” emerged about 200 years later, likely from a semantic shift.

Today, French still maintains the definition of wide or broad, as do many other Romance languages including Italian, Portuguese, and even Galician. Interestingly, Spanish is one of the only Romance languages that use largo to mean long instead of wide, as largo displaced the Old Spanish word luengo, which came from the Latin word longus meaning long.

Grande, the actual Spanish word for large, comes from the Latin word grandem which also means “big, great; full, abundant” but was also figuratively used as “strong, powerful, and severe”. As an interesting point, the English word grand also comes from this word via the French word grand (or grant). Originally, the English meaning was also “large” but came to take on a sense of being “imposing”. By the 16th century, it would also be used to describe the “principal or most important”.

This kind of drifting towards a description of something more formal or figurative was really common between French and English since French was the language of the noble class in England after the successful invasion of England by the French-speaking Norman people in 1066. As I mentioned earlier, there are a huge number of false cognates between English and Spanish, and this tendency of drifting towards a specific meaning of a French word is how a lot of those happened.

Have you ever been caught off guard by a false cognate?