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Know who your friends are: watch out for false cognates.

A few years ago, the Parker Company marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico.  The tagline chosen for the advertisement read, "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you."  When the company translated the phrase into Spanish, however, the resulting phrase meant: "It won't leak in your pocket and impregnate you."

This mistake might seem silly unless you know that the Spanish word for impregnate is embarazar, very similar to the word embarrass in English.  It looks like embarrass; it even sounds like embarrass; but it certainly doesn't mean the same thing! 

Such words are commonly referred to as false cognates or false friends.  Words such as assist and asistir are false cognates, having similar spelling and pronunciation but different meanings.  In English assist means to help, but in Spanish, asistir means to attend.

Here are some Spanish-English word pairs that are false friends (with their correct English translations in parentheses):


asistir (to attend) ≠ assist

largo (long) ≠ large

atender (to take care of) ≠ attend

pretender (to try) ≠ pretend

bizarro (brave) ≠ bizarre

ropa (clothes)  ≠ rope

embarazada (pregnant) ≠ embarrassed

sopa (soup) ≠ soap

éxito (success) ≠ exit

suceso (event) ≠ success

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