For those not too familiar with linguistics or translation, a false friend is a word that feels almost like a direct translation from another language, but in reality means something completely different, with the added bonus of usually being something rude to add insult to injury.
There is no real trick or rule to catch false friends out since they very rarely make sense and are generally understood as being pure coincidence. The only way to know them is via memorization, or by experiencing the soul-crushing moment of using one, surviving the collective silence that comes after it, and hoping it will be followed with a burst of laughter.
Here are a few of the more common ones that involve Spanish and English, and with a bit of luck, they can save somebody a couple of blushes.
CONSTIPADO / CONSTIPATED
In Spanish, a constipado is something as mundane as the collection of symptoms of the common cold. In English, although also rather mundane, being constipated is the collection of symptoms of having toilet trouble.
If someone from Spain with a runny nose and a sore throat happens to mention out of the blue that he or she is constipated, it’s safe to assume that they aren’t referring to actual constipation. Or perhaps they are. You probably don’t want to know.
EMBARAZADA / EMBARRASSED
Embarazada in Spanish means being pregnant. Embarrassed in English refers to a shameful or uncomfortable situation. While pregnancy is a process that alters the body in many ways and can cause side effects like hormonal imbalances and many other kinds of discomfort, for the sake of humanity, we hope that it does not cause embarrassment.
This one is particularly cruel with English men learning Spanish. If acknowledging an embarrassing situation wasn’t enough, imagine cocking up and instead saying you’re pregnant. That’s comedy gold for the ages right there.
GROSERÍA / GROCERY
In Spanish, grosería is any kind of insult or rude expression that is frowned upon. In English, grocery, or more commonly groceries, is what we buy on a regular trip to the supermarket. This one in particular is a treat, because the two ways in which it can go wrong are wonderfully comical
Either a Spanish person is complaining about somebody using an assortment of varied foods against his or her dignity, or an English person is inquiring on where to purchase a weekly share of insults. It just never disappoints.
CASUALIDAD / CASUALTY
Casualidad in Spanish means a simple coincidence. Casualty in English is an actual person who has been killed due to an accident or another situation, usually involving violence.
Imagine starting a new job with a Spanish manager that isn’t too good with English. He explains to his workers that his company has flourished due to the hard work of everyone involved along the years, but that the most key element to its success was the sheer amount of casualties involved. The silence in the room, due to everybody wondering if they have really signed up for one of Tony Soprano’s money laundering shell companies, can be a moment to remember.
On the other hand, an English speaker attempting to describe an accident scene in Spanish, and constantly mentioning the amount of coincidences involved, might prove to be a tad confusing at best. While technically true in a certain way, it’s kind of missing the point.