Friday, May 9, 2014

Avoiding embarrassing (but funny!) mistakes when speaking Spanish

A few weeks ago the Professor and I invited some friends over for brunch and our talk turned to all the embarrassing mistakes you can make when you're learning Spanish. After a few minutes, we were cracking up about all the instances where we thought we were saying one thing but we were actually saying another. There are tons of words in English and Spanish that sound really similar but have totally different meanings. In linguistics, these are called false friends or false cognates. A lot of them are really innocent: 'libreria' sounds like it should mean 'library' but it actually means 'bookstore', 'fábrica' sounds like the Spanish word for 'fabric' but it actually means 'factory', 'realizar' sounds like 'to realize' but it means 'achieve'.

But some of them are not that innocent and if you say one word thinking it means something else, you could either be saying something kind of dirty or giving someone way too much information. Here is a list of a few I've thought of so far:

1.  constipado: It sounds like this word means constipated, right? But if your friend tells you 'Estoy constipado', they're not being overly open with you. They're telling you they have a cold. The correct word for constipated in Spanish is estreñido.

2.  miembro: You might think this word means 'member' but it actually refers to a part of the male anatomy. So if you want to join a gym, don't say, 'Quiero ser miembro' (eeps!), say instead 'Quiero ser socio'.

3.  preservativo: I actually didn't learn the meaning of this word until I came to Spain. In Spain, 'preservativo' means 'condom', but in South America, condom is 'condón' which is the word I used to use for this. However, a native English speaker might think 'preservativo' means 'preservative' as in 'There are no preservatives in this bread.' But the correct way to say that in Spanish is: 'No hay conservantes en este pan'.  Also the word 'conservantes' might sound like it refers to a member of the Conservative party but the correct word for a politically conservative person is 'conservador'.

4. molestar: My students find this one hilarious but it can really lead to misunderstandings. If someone says to you, 'Juan me molesta', they're not accusing Juan of sexual assault. They're saying that Juan bothers or annoys them. The correct word for molest in Spanish is 'acosar'.

5. embarazada: This is another really common one. If you say 'Estoy embarazada' you're telling people that you're pregnant. If you instead wanted to say 'I'm embarrassed', say 'Estoy avergonzado/a' but if there is an embarrassing situation, you can say ' Es un momento embarazoso'.

6. excitar: Okay, this is a tricky one so it's probably best to avoid using it altogether if you're just learning the language. Because in some cases, this word means 'to excite' or 'to stimulate' as in 'The book stimulated her imagination'. But in other cases, this word means to excite sexually or turn someone on. So for the love of God, don't say 'Estoy excitada' unless you're in an intimate setting.

That's all I can think of for now. Have you guys ever made any of these mistakes? Can you think of any examples I forgot to list?

(Photo: Laughing women)


  1. Comprometido is always funny!

    Thanks for the funny and uselful post!


    1. Thanks Neda. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Haha! Too funny! My favorite is #2!

    1. Yeah that is a pretty bad one. :)

  3. I'm sure I've had many of these moments and even more to come.

  4. Such a great term: " false friends or false cognates."

    I'm hoping to pick up my spanish again... will have to avoid these.

    1. You definitely should pick it up again if you have the time! Thanks for stopping by!