Not Quite a False Friend
In language learning a "false friend" is a word that looks similar in one language to another language, but does not carry the same meaning. For example, éxito does not mean "exit", it means success. Salida means exit.
Many of the words on the following list are something like that, in that they have a meaning similar to an English one but often mean something different. Translating them as the English cognates may make sense some of the time but frequently it won't.
Admirar: It can mean "to admire." But it frequently means "to surprise" or "to astonish."
Acción: It is usually synonymous with "action" in its various meanings. But to a stock broker it can also mean a "share," and to an artist it can be "posture" or "pose."
Aparente: It can mean the same as the English "apparent." However, the Spanish usually carries a strong implication that things aren't what they appear to be. Thus, aparentemente fue a la tienda would usually be understood not as "he apparently went to the store" but as "it appeared like he had gone to the store but he didn't."
Agonía: Nobody wants to be in agony, but the Spanish agonía is much worse, usually suggesting that someone is in the final stages of death.
Americano: The understanding of this word varies from place to place. If you're from the United States, it's safest to say soy de los Estados Unidos.
Apología: The Spanish word doesn't have anything to do with saying you're sorry. But it is synonymous with the English word "apology" only when it means "a defense," as in a defense of the faith. An apology in the usual sense of the word is excusa or disculpa.
Arena: In sports, arena can refer to an arena. But it is more commonly used as the word for "sand."
Argumento: This word and its verb form, argumentar, refer to the type of argument a lawyer might make. It can also refer to the theme of a book, play or similar work. On the other hand, a quarrel could be a discusión or disputa.
Balance, balanceo, balancear: Although these words can sometimes be translated as "balance," they most often refer to a swinging or oscillation. Words with meanings more closely related to the English "balance" include balanza, equilibrio, saldo, equilibrar, contrapesar, and saldar.
Cándido: Although this word can mean "frank," it more often means "naively innocent."
Colegio: The Spanish word can refer to almost any school, not just ones that provides university-level classes.
Conducir: It can mean "to conduct" or (in the reflexive form conducirse) "to conduct oneself." But it more often means "to drive" or "to transport." For that reason, a conductor on a train (or other vehicle) is the person in the driving seat, not someone who handles tickets.
Confidencia: Its meaning is related to the English meaning of "confidence" as a secret. If you're referring to trust in someone, confianza would be more appropriate.
Criatura: Most commonly it means "creature" or "being," including humans. But it is also commonly used to refer to babies and even to fetuses.
Demandar: As a legal term only, demandar and the noun form, la demanda, are similar to the English "demand." But to demand something in a less formal situation, use exigir or exigencia.
Dirección: It usually means "direction" in most of the ways it is used in English. But it is also the most common way of referring to a postal address.
Discusión: The Spanish word often carries the connotation that a discussion has become heated. Alternatives include conversación and debate (which doesn't have to refer to a formal debate).
Excitado: This adjective can be synonymous with "excited," but a closer equivalent is "aroused" — which doesn't have to have sexual overtones but usually does. Better translations of "excited" include emocionado and agitado.
Familiar: In Spanish, the adjective is more closely connected with the meaning of "family" than in English. Often a better word to use for something you're familiar with is conocido ("known") or común ("common").
Habitual: The word often does mean "habitual" and it is a common translation for the English word. But it can refer to something that is normal, typical or customary.
Historia: This word is obviously related to the English word "history," but it is also similar to "story." It can mean either one.
Honesto: It can mean "honest." But honesto and its negative form, deshonesto, more often have sexual overtones, meaning "chaste" and "lewd," or "slutty," respectively. Better words for "honest" are honrado and sincero.
Intentar: Like the English cognate, it can mean to plan or want to do something. But it also is frequently used to indicate more than a mental state, referring to an actual attempt. It thus is often a good translation for "to try."
Intoxicado, intoxicar: These words refer to almost any kind of poisoning. To refer specifically to the symptoms of alcohol poisoning, use borracho or any number of slang terms.
Introducir: This verb can be translated as, among other things, "to introduce" in the sense of "to bring in," "to begin," "to put" or "to place." For example, se introduce la ley en 1998, the law was introduced (put in effect) in 1998. But it's not the verb to use to introduce someone. For that purpose, use presentar.
Marcar: While it usually means "to mark" in some way, it also can mean "to dial" a telephone, "to score" in a game, and "to notice." Marca is most often "brand" (with origins similar to the English "trademark"), while marco can be a "window frame" or "picture frame."
Notorio: Like the English "notorious," it means "well-known," but in Spanish it usually doesn't have the negative connotation.
Opaco: It can mean "opaque," but it can also mean "dark" or "gloomy."
Oración: Like the English "oration," an oración can refer to a speech. But it also can refer to a prayer or a sentence (in the grammatical sense).
Oscuro: It can mean "obscure," but it more often means "dark."
Parientes: All of one's relatives are parientes in Spanish, not just parents. To refer to parents specifically, use padres.
Petición: In English, "petition" as a noun most often means a list of names or a legal demand of some sort. Petición (among other words) can be used as a Spanish translation in such cases, but most often petición refers to almost any kind of request.
Probar: It can mean "to probe" or "to test." But it is frequently used to mean "to taste" or "to try on" clothes.
Propaganda: The Spanish word can have the negative implications of the English word, but it often doesn't, simply meaning "advertising."
Punto: "Point" often works as a translation of this word, but it also has a variety of other meanings such as "dot," a type of stitch, "belt hole," "cog," "opportunity," and "taxi stand."
Real, realismo: "Real" and "realism" are the obvious meanings, but these words also can mean "royal" and "regalism." Similarly, a realista can be either a realist or a royalist. Fortunately, realidad is "reality"; to say "royalty," use realeza.
Rentar: In some areas of Latin America, rentar can indeed mean "to rent." But it also has a more common meaning, "to yield a profit." Similarly, the most common meaning of rentable is "profitable."
Rumor: When used in a figurative sense, it indeed does mean "rumor." But it also often means a low, soft sound of voices, commonly translated as "murmurring," or any soft, vague sound, such as the gurgling of a creek.
Soportar: Although it can be translated as "to support" in some usages, it often is better translated as "to tolerate" or "to endure." Some of the verbs that are better used to mean "to support" include sostener or aguantar in the sense of supporting weight, and apoyar or ayudar in the sense of supporting a friend.
Típico: This word usually does mean "typical," but it doesn't have the negative connotation that the English word often has. Also, típico often means something along the lines of "traditional" or "having the characteristics of the local area." Thus if you see a restaurant offering comidas típicas, expect food that is characteristic for the region, not merely "typical" food.
Último: Although something that is the best can be referred to as lo último, the word more commonly means "last" or "most recent."
Vicioso: Although this word is sometimes translated as "vicious," it more often means "depraved" or simply "faulty."
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