I've compiled together the most common vocabulary mistakes I've heard made by Spanish speakers during my 6 years of teaching English. Most of which have their roots in literal translation and what are known as false friends; words or phrases that have a similar form in a person's native language but a different meaning in the second language. For example, in the past, when I've asked my students for some famous British criminals, more often than not they've said "Jack the Stripper" instead of Jack the Ripper (Jack el Destripador in Spanish). So the false friends are Destripador/Stripper. Let's see some more:
- Idioma/Idiom : An "idioma" is a language in English and an idiom is a "refrán" in Spanish. So we can talk about the English language in general but an example of an English idiom is Cat got your tongue? (¿Te ha comido la lengua el gato?)
- Jamón/Jam : "Jamón" is ham and jam is "mermelada". For more information on this, check out my blog article about jam written in Spanish.
- Assistir/Assist : Be careful with these two as they could be used in the same sentence but change the meaning! You only assist an event if you are helping. If you're simply going, then you're attending.
- Carpeta/Carpet : A carpet is a "moqueta" but you put papers in a file. Like with "carpeta", the word file in English is also used for storing virtual documents.
- Constipado/ Constipated : Very important to avoid embarrassment! If you're "constipado", you have a blocked nose or, more scientifically, nasal congestion. However, you're constipated in English, you can't go to the toilet (estreñido).
- Maleta/Mallet : You certainly can't take a mallet on an aeroplane as this is a "mazo" and would be considered a weapon. You can take a suitcase though.
- Invitar/Invite : This is a tricky one because you can invite someone to an event like a wedding (invitar a alguien a una boda) but when we talk about buying something for someone, the word in English is treat. For example, you can treat someone to dinner (invitar a alguien a cenar). Note: treat shouldn't be confused with threat (amenaza). Don't threaten someone to have dinner with you!
- Casualidad/Casualty : When you say "por casualidad" in Spanish, this means by chance in English. A casualty refers to "una persona herida o fallecida a causa de ser víctima de un acontecimiento".
- Salado/Salad : You can eat a salad (ensalada) but "salado" is savoury. Remember this phrase: meat is never salad.
- "Sensible" in Spanish means sensitive and "sensato" means sensible in English. These are truly false friends and you may need a while to process these. You may need to invent and memorise two phrases in order not to mix them. Here's a suggestion:
Sensible Sophie is "sensato". Sensitive Sophie is "sensible".
- Trampa/ Tramp : A tramp in English is a "vagabundo". Note: vagabond does exist but only in old fashioned English. A "trampa" is a trick or trap. So don't fall in the trap and get it wrong!
- Trama/Tram : A tram is a means of transport, "tranvía" in Spanish, but a story's "trama" is the plot.
- Decepción/Deception : Deception is "engaño" and "decepción" is disappointment. You may feel disappointment as a result of being deceived.
- Diversión/Diversion : When driving in the UK, if a road is blocked because of roadworks, it's very common to see a sign with an arrow which says diversion. This is pointing the way to a "desvío" so if you thought it was directing you towards "diversión" like a party, then you're on the road to disappointment and deception my friends! If you're still unsure about the meaning of those two words in italics, see above.
- Diario/Diary : In a diary you may write down what you have to do or have already done, like in a "diario/agenda" but it doesn't refer to what happens every day. This means daily. For example, English newspapers which come out every day often have daily in the title, such as the Daily Telegraph or, for Harry Potter fans, the Daily Prophet!
- Familiar (n) / Familiar (adj) : A "familiar" in Spanish is a family member and is a noun. The identical-looking word in English familiar is only an adjective and can be used to describe many more things other than your family. If something looks/is/sounds familiar, "te suena". Take for example the phrase in English your face looks familiar, which means "tu cara me suena". If you're going for extra native points, you could also use the idiomatic phrase your face rings a bell.
- Plaza/Place : A "plaza de aparcar" is a parking space and a "plaza" alone is a square. A place can be an "asiento" or a "lugar/sitio".
- Pretender/Pretend : These two used to confuse me until I discovered they were false friends! The Spanish verb "pretender" means to try while the English to pretend means "fingir".
- Carrera/Career : A career is only a "carrera profesional" in English. If you're talking about a university qualification, it's called a degree.
- Discusión/Discussion : It's very important to get these two right as they can change the meaning of the context. A "discusión" is an argument in English, whereas a discussion is a "debate". Although a discussion can get heated, it doesn't end in people losing their temper and shouting at each other.
- Título/Title : The confusion here comes from the fact that "título" has more meanings in Spanish. Similar to English, "título" refers to, for example, the title of an article or a title of nobility (título nobiliario). "Título" in a legal context would be entitlement, so a "título de propiedad" would be a property entitlement. A "título de inglés", however, would be an English qualification.
And now for the ultimate in false friends ..... anglicisms in Spanish! Okay, some of them are harmless like bacon, jamón york or Black Friday. But others actually impede English learning and just create more misconceptions about the language. Here are the 5 deadliest ones which are frequently misused in English.
- Freaky : A person or situation can be freaky (adjective meaning "raro/peculiar"). But a person who has a highly specialised interest in something is a nerd. For example, the characters in The Big Bang Theory are physics nerds.
- Parking : This is the action in English, not the place. The place is either a car park (British English) or a parking lot (American English).
- Smoking : Again, this is the act, not anything you wear. Compare these two sentences.
Smoking is not permitted in public buildings.
He was wearing a black tux(edo) AE / dinner suit BE with a white bow tie.
AE = American English BE= British English
- American : an American is only an American citizen, not a kind of jacket, which in English is called a blazer.
- Balconing : Although it's generally Brits on holiday in Spain who do this, it's still not a classified sport (and hopefully never will be!) therefore we don't have a specific word for it. Only the phrase jumping off a balcony into a swimming pool.
And that's it! So now's the time to get your head around these words and practise using them correctly. You may be wondering why I'm not promoting the creation of new words and uses since my last article was about Shakespeare and how he invented many words. Well, the truth is folks you have to master the English language like Shakespeare before you can become him. Once you've done that, then you can do what you like ... take it one step at a time!