Bilingualism's False Friends - On-Spanish by Raul Guerrero

Now that science has corroborated that bilingualism makes us smarter, and profoundly benefits the brain, as reported by the New York Times, people are brushing up on their Spanish. At least resorting to words both languages have in common—not few. In 1060 the French invaded the British Iles and injected English with a heavy dose of Latin, accounting for over fifty percent of its vocabulary, and of course Spanish derives from Latin.

Be careful! The French coined false amies for similar words meaning different things in different languages. Some differences can be amusing and others dangerous. Linguists like to recall the story of President Carter on a visit to Mexico, he said: Estoy muy embarazado por no hablar español, “I am very pregnant for not speaking Spanish.” To be embarrassed is avergonzado. Not so funny to mistake estúpido for stupid. English has softened it to silly, but Spanish has retained the original sense of the Latin stupidus, dense, obtuse, the typical block-head.

Here is a list of seven dangerous false cognates:

1. Molestar has nothing to do with the predatory act of molestation. Molestar is to bother, to annoy, as in no me molestes, “don’t bother me, leave me alone.” To molest is abusar or violar.

2. Divertir is not to divert but to entertain. Divert is desviar.

3. Publicidad is not free publicity but paid advertisement.

4. Agresivo, an aggressive businesswoman does not translate to una ejecutiva agresiva (one who, unable to take no for an answer, gives clients a beating.) Un hombre agresivo con las mujeres is not the gregarious guy who impetuously charms ladies, but the ruffian who batters them. Aggressive is emprendedor, audaz, dinámico.

5. Introducir shares with the English verb to introduce the sense of beginning, of bringing in, as in Colón introdujo el tabaco en Europa, “Columbus introduced tobacco in Europe.” Don’t use it to introduce people. Pedro le introduce a María has vulgar sexual overtones, as introducir also means to penetrate. Presentar is used to introduce people, as in Pedro me presenta a María, “Pedro introduces me to María.”

6. Pretender is not faking; it means trying, as in Julia pretende asistir a Harvard, “Julia is trying to go to Harvard.” To pretend is fingir.

7. Capable is the most dangerous, spelled exactly as the English adjective for aptitude capable, as in Joe is a capable mathematician. The Spanish capable denotes a propensity or state of readiness to be castrated. Capable is capaz.


Raúl Guerrero is a journalist, historian, and  writer specializing in women’s struggles and language. He is the author of numerous works, notably the novels INSOLENCE and La dudosa fuga de la cronista LIBERTINA. He lectures frequently in Florida and New York. 

Contact him at

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