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English to Spanish: Similar Words, Different Meanings

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

English and Spanish Have So Many Similarities

When it comes to similarities between languages, it can appear that English and Spanish contain many. The official word for similar words between languages is “cognates.” A cognate is a word that not only looks similar between two languages, but actually derives from the same origin. Additionally, they have similar spellings and pronunciation. Because English and Spanish share Latin roots, many words in both languages that we still use today remain mostly the same as they were in Latin. Thus, they are easily recognizable by speakers of both modern languages. For example, the English word "adolescent" and the Spanish word "adolescente" are cognates because they both come from the Latin word "adolescente." Similarly, the English word "April" and the Spanish word "abril" are cognates because they both come from the Latin word "Aprilis." You can read more about cognates in this post.

But Beware Relying on These Similarities Too Much

However, just because English and Spanish share many words from their commonalities with Latin, these just represent a fraction of the English language, estimated at around 20,000 words (Source). While modern Spanish maintains about 75% of its similarities with its Latin roots, the English language has a much more complex make-up (Source 2). English is a West Germanic language in origin that has enormous influences of French and Latin during decades of conquest, followed by heavy influence of other European languages during the Renaissance. Therefore, while modern Spanish and English share Latin cognates, that represents a small percentage of overlap overall. Spanish, too, is not purely modern-day Latin. It also “has many other influences as well. Several other languages, including Greek, Arabic, and some of the languages of the native cultures of the Americas have contributed words to Spanish in its modern form” (Source 2).

Because there are so many words- the estimated 20,000- that are so similar between Spanish and English, it can easily be misleading when coming across a word in the other language that looks so similar to your language. But be wary, since there are many words that appear similar, but they are fake cognates. We’ve compiled a list of 30 examples to show you how misleading these can be. One of the best examples is the Spanish “embarazada.” It looks like the English “embarrassed,” right? But if you say “Estoy embarazada” in Spanish, you’re not saying you’re embarrassed, you’re saying you’re pregnant! To say you are embarrassed in Spanish, you’d say “Estoy avergonzado.” A single misused false cognate can lead to quite the misunderstanding!

English Wrong Spanish Translation Correct translation

(with actual meaning in parentheses)

Actual Actual (This means current) Real

Arena Arena (This means sand) Estadio

Argument Argumento (This means plot) Discusión

Assist Asistir (This means to attend) Ayudar

Billion Billón (This means Trillion) Mil millones

Carpet Carpeta (This meand folder) Alfombra

Code Codo (This means elbow) Código

College Colegio (This means school) Universidad

Conductor Conductor (This means driver) Director de orquesta

Constipation Constipado (This means cold) Estreñimiento

Deception Decepción (This means dissapoinment) Engaño

Excited Excitado (This means hot, horny) Esntusiasmado

Fabric Fábrica (This means factory) Tela

Grocery Grocería (This means a swear word) Comestibles

Idiom Idioma (This means language) Modismo

Introduce Introducir (This means insert) Presentar

Large Largo (This means long) Grande

Lecture Lectura (This means reading) Conferencia, disertación

Library Librería (This means bookstore) Biblioteca

Momentum Momento (This means moment) Impulso

Nude Nudo (This means knot) Desnudo

Pan Pan (This means bread) Cacerola

Policy Policía (This means police) Política, póliza

Preservative Preservativo (This means condon) Conservante

Pretend Pretender (This means to intent) Fingir

Recollection Recolección (This means collection) Recuerdo

Rope Ropa (This means clothes) Cuerda

Sane Sano (This means healthy) Cuerdo

Sympathetic Simpático (This means nice) Comprensivo

Ultimate Último (last) Final

So What Does This Mean for My Translations and Learning Another Language?

Simply knowing false cognates exist is half the battle! As always, you can have fun with learning about these fake cognates and translation in general, but always leave the professional translating to those who specialize in this area. A word may be a cognate in its noun form, but there are many more complexities when putting those words into sentences. For example, when pluralizing a cognate, it will follow different rules in each language. That is where Language Concepts can help. Getting professional translation of your work is more affordable than you might think, and it will benefit your business for years to come to establish reliable, local-sounding messaging.

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