Spanish language Embarrassed or Pregnant?

This article was written by Dave Clark for US Institute of Languages and is republished here with permission.
 

You can't always translate phrases directly from English to Spanish and expect to get them right or have them make sense. By the same token, you can't take words that sound the same in both languages and suppose that they have the same meaning.

There is a heavy-duty term used in the language-learning world called "cognate." A cognate is a word that looks similar in English and Spanish and has the same meaning in both languages. For example, the word "irregular" in Spanish and English is spelled the same, has the same meaning, and has similar pronunciation. It is a cognate. There are many words in Spanish and English that are cognates and many words that are "false cognates." A false cognate is a word that looks the same in both languages, sounds similar, but has a different meaning. You have to watch out for false cognates in Spanish because they can really get you into trouble. Let me give you an example of this.

The English word "embarrassed" sounds and looks a lot like the Spanish word "embarazada." Many people learning Spanish think it has the same meaning. However, the Spanish word "embarazada" actually means pregnant! Let me tell you - there is a big difference between being pregnant and being embarrassed. The following story will illustrate this fact and hopefully make you aware of false cognates so you don't have problems with them.

A large crowd had gathered together in an auditorium to hear a lecture. There were some native Spanish speakers, who were dignitaries, sitting on the stage. An American woman had been invited to address the audience as a guest speaker. As she began speaking, she introduced herself, and then to break the ice, she pointed to the person on the stage who had invited her to speak and said in Spanish, "I'm embarazada and it's his fault." She meant to say "I'm embarrassed and it's his fault," but what she actually said was "I'm pregnant'and it's his fault." The crowd gasped and everyone was in shock. You can imagine how she must have felt afterward when she found out what she had really said.

This is a very drastic example, but it shows the importance of knowing that false cognates exist. Learning them will help you avoid cultural faux pas and embarrassment.

¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)

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List of false cognates

 

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