Old Friends Are the Best Friends, But Watch Out For False Friends

Cognates are a great shortcut to learning Spanish, as Spanish and English have thousands of these words that are basically the same in both languages.

Most words that end in English in tion can be changed to Spanish by ción.  An example is the solution to la solución.  (And we laughingly add that an easy way to remember these are all feminine words is to remember that solutions are feminine, and problems are masculine.  El problema is one of those words ending in ma, pa, ta, which entered Spanish through Greek.)

But beware of these common false friends.  They look and sound like an English words, but have a completely different meaning.

Actual – means current, at the present time, as in actualmente.

Use real or verdadero for real or actual.

Asistir – means to attend.  Asisto a la escuela.

Use ayudar for to help or to assist.

Carpeta – means a file folder.  Use alfombra for carpet or rug.

Constipado – refers to cold congestion, doesn’t mean the obvious.

Use estreñido for constipated.

Decepcion, decepcionar – means disappointed.  Estoy muy decepcionada.

Use engañoso for deceptive.             Delito – means a minor crime.

Use un encanto for something very nice.             Desgracia – means a misfortune.

For a real disgrace use una vergüenza.

Embarazada – means pregnant, not embarrassing.  (This is a common mistake, and I once overheard a priest state Estoy embarazado.  Very amusing!)

Use tener vergüenza or sentirse avergonzado.

Emocionado (a)  – means thrilling or exciting, not just emotional as in a mood.  Estoy muy emocionada.

Exito – means a success, as in tener éxito.  Use la salida for the exit.

Largo – means long.  Use grande for large.

Molestar – means to bother without any sexual meaning.  Me molesta mucho el humo (smoke).

Pretender – means to try.  For pretense use fingir.

Recordar – means to remind or remember.  Use grabar to make a recording.

Sano – means healthy.  Use en su juicio for sane.

Suceso – means the event.  Use éxito for success.

Tuna – means either a cactus fruit or a university choral group.  Use atun for the fish.

And don’t forget those basic words of ropa – meaning clothes, not rope, and sopa – meaning soup (jabón is soap).

The importance of gender

No, this lesson has nothing to do with women’s rights or “boys will be boys”. It all deals with that element of Spanish which learners find perplexing at the beginning. Every noun under the sun in Spanish is either masculine or feminine, and it has nothing to do with sexual roles.

No, this lesson has nothing to do with women’s rights or “boys will be boys”.  It all deals with that element of Spanish which learners find perplexing at the beginning.  Every noun under the sun in Spanish is either masculine or feminine, and it has nothing to do with sexual roles.

It originated from older languages from which Spanish evolved.  So, you have to learn which is which for every noun you learn, but is it important?  Indubitably so!  Let me share a recent personal story with you.  Having broken my leg in September, I was moving slowly and in a fog of aching.  While going at a snail’s pace to enter a taxi, and with that ache fog kicking in, I said to the taxi driver, “Disculpe, es que tengo un pato malo.”  The minute it slipped my mouth I knew I had the gender wrong (blame it on the ache!), and this was confirmed by the driver’s puzzled look.  While trying to say that I had a bad “paw”, casual for foot or leg, I had actually said that I had a bad duck.  I didn’t even try to backtrack with what I said, and the driver is probably still wondering about that strange lady who talks about her misbehaving bird.

So learn from my distressing and confusing mistake, and take the time to learn the correct gender.  Here are a few general rules –

  • If it ends in ión (and there are lots of these!) – it’s always feminine.  If a noun ends in ia, it’s feminine.  La panadería, la existencia
  • Many words which end in ma, pa, ta originated from Greek and despite ending in A, are feminine.  El mapa, el sistema, el cometa (an actual comet, as la cometa is a toy kite), One of these often used is problema, which is always masculine.  No hay problema, used without an el or un is the correct way to say, “no problem”.  But consider, El problema es una falta de dinero.  La falta de dinero es un problema grave. And here I have to throw in my favorite chiste – Problems are always masculine, and solutions are always feminine (see Rule 1, la solución).A word which ends in ma is an exception to this rule – the alarm (as in an alarm system) is La alarma.
  • Words which end in ón are always masculine.  This is often added to a word to make it bigger.  La silla is the chair, but el sillón is a big armchair.
  • One of the trickiest and widely used word is agua.  It is in essence a feminine word and when used plurally or modified it is said as las aguas, agua purificada.  But watch out when it comes to being said with a singular the or one.  It’s correct to say el agua, or un agua.  Why, you ask?  It all has to do with pronunciation.  If the natural emphasis of the word falls on the first syllable where the a occurs, if you said la agua, it would morph into laaaaagua and not be intelligible.  So there’s really a good reason for making this singular form masculine.
  • Just as in my duck/paw story above, many words change completely when you change the gender.  Watch out for the following: El Papa – the Pope, la papa – potato, el papá – the dad (here it’s just the accent that makes it different) / El cero – zero, la cera – wax / La mora – berry , el moro – the Moorish man / El mango – the fruit, la manga – sleeve, as in mangas largas o cortas / El caso – the case, matter, la casa – the house / La manguera – the hose, el manguero – the hoseman or fireman
  • Common exceptions to watch out for: La mano – hand, as in las manos sucias, las manos limpias


Please develop the practice of always learning the gender when you learn a new noun, and avoid embarrassment, grief, and misunderstanding!