The Language Department

Not Quite the Same: Exit and Éxito

Cognates are words that look similar or identical in different languages and mean the same. ‘Amateur’ means the same in English and Spanish. False and falso is another example. But be careful!

False cognate. The translator probably needed more coffee, or had a poetic moment and meant: Success here! Phoo, Rudy Kleysteurber.

Now that science has declared bilingualism beneficial for the brain, recent arrivals to Miami, and those who have been here longer but chose to neglect Spanish, are picking up all kinds of apps to learn the language of Don Quixote. After all, I overheard a conversation in a downtown cafe, “Miami is the Spanish-speaking country closest to the US.”

Or, to follow George Bernard Shaw’s stylistic reasoning that England and America are two countries divided by a common language, let’s say that English and Spanish are two languages united by one Miami. Both languages have plenty in common. In 1060, the French invaded the British Isles and injected English with a heavy dose of Latin, accounting for over fifty percent of its vocabulary. Of course, Latin is Spanish’s mother language, the source. Accordingly, cognates abound.

But Be careful!

The French coined false amies (false friends) for similar or identical words with different meaning. Some differences can be amusing and others dangerous. A politician visiting Mexico, in a luncheon, said: Estoy muy embarazado por no hablar español, “I am very pregnant for not speaking Spanish.” Embarazado, sounds and looks like embarrassed but means pregnant. To be embarrassed is avergonzado or abochornado.

It’s not funny, however, to mistake estúpido for stupid. English has softened stupid to silly. In Spanish, estúpido retains the original Latin sense of stupidus: dense, obtuse, your typical block-head.

10 Cognates that are closely related, false and dangerous

1. Molestar has nothing to do with the predatory act of molestation. Molestar is to bother, 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, as in the new senator diverted public funds to his spouse’s bank account. Divertir is to entertain. Divert is desviar.

3. Publicidad is both advertising and publicity. More often paid advertisement. Una agencia de publicidad is an advertisement agency. El presupuesto de publicidad is the advertisement budget.” To use publicidad in the sense of “publicity” best use the phrase darle publicidad, or promocionar.

4. Agresivo, an aggressive businesswoman does not translate to una ejecutiva agresiva (one who, unable to close a deal, assaults clients.) 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 and the English verb “to introduce” share the sense of bringing in, as in Colón introdujo el tabaco en Europa, “Columbus introduced tobacco in Europe.” But don’t use it to introduce people. “Pete introduces Maria” doesn’t translate to Pedro le introduce a María, which carries vulgar sexual overtones, as introduce also means inserts, penetrates. Presentar is used to introduce people, as in Pedro presenta a María, “Pedro introduces María.”

6. Pretender does mean to pretend, but more often is used for trying, or aspiring, as in Julia pretende asistir a Harvard, “Julia aspires to go to Harvard.” To pretend is fingir.

7. Exito is not what it looks like, “to exist.” It means success. Exitoso is successful. The exit is la salida.

8. Constipación does not translate to constipation. It means having a cold. Literally, to be congested. Constipated is estriñido, for men, and estriñida is the feminine form.

9. Asistir looks like assist, but to assist is ayudar. Asistir is to attend a conference, a class.

The Most Dangerous False Cognate

10. Capable is spelled exactly as the English word for aptitude “capable,” as in Joe is a capable mathematician. The Spanish capable denotes a propensity or state of readiness to be castrated. So, don’t translate Joe is capable to Jose es capable (Jose is castratable.) Capable is capaz.