False Friends


English is the least Germanic of the Germanic languages; about half its vocabulary is of Latin origin. Logically enough, when we come across one of these English words with a Latin root, we tend to think that it means the same as its Spanish equivalent, and usually we are right. But some of them deceive; their similarity of form conceals a difference of meaning. These are known as false friends, and they are the subject of this dictionary.

Not all false friends are equally false. Some are always false, like deception, which never means decepción, but engaño. Others are sometimes false, like platform, which can mean andén as well as plataforma. This dictionary distinguishes them typographically: the correct Spanish equivalent is printed in bold and the sometimes but not always correct one in bold italic, while the always wrong is in italic.

Nor do all false friends lead equally to confusion. The biggest group of false friends are those whose meanings have diverged from a common etymological base, either Latin, French, Greek, Germanic or other, but there are many word-pairs of quite different origins which have ended up looking similar through pure chance. In such cases as agape, ailment, arras, can, castor, condo, mate, mole, pan, pie, rape and target no confusion with the Spanish homonyms is possible, so they have been excluded. They may well be amusing wordplays but putting them in the list would not contribute to the practical purpose of this compilation, which is explained below.

For the same reason words have been excluded which may be identical or similar in form but belong to different grammatical categories in Spanish and English, so that in practice there is no risk of confusion. In the sentence he defected to the enemy it is clear, even to a reader who does not know that to defect means desertar, that defected cannot mean defecto, since one is a verb and the other a noun. Further examples are to exact, to humour, to impair and to malign, whose putative Spanish false friends would be nouns or adjectives and have therefore been left out. On the other hand noun-adjective pairs like aerial, brief and cabal have been included, because the change between one category and the other is so often compatible with translation.

I also need to refer to what I call lost battles. These are Spanish words whose false English friends have taken them over altogether. Doméstico, according to the Spanish Academy’s Dictionary, means associated with house or home, not, like English domestic, national or internal (as against international). But the latter sense is now so widely given to doméstico that its official acceptance can only be a matter of time. The same is happening with severo, which as well as its traditional meaning of rigorous in enforcing the law or inflicting punishment is being used more and more, under the influence of English severe, as a synonym of grave. Another example is santuario, which has acquired, in addition to its religious sense, the meaning of asylum, refuge, nature reserve, taken from sanctuary. And one last example: secuela is now used to mean continuation or part two of films or television series, under the influence of sequel. It still sets my teeth on edge to read of vuelos domésticos, lesiones severas, un santuario para aves rapaces or la secuela de Terminator, but the fact is that widespread use over time usually converts improper usage into a new standard.

This is not a dictionary of English, or of Spanish usage. Its aim is more modest and limited: simply to draw attention, or at least to encourage doubt, and the reflex of not assuming that two similar words in different languages must have the same meaning. I have therefore tried to make it clear and concise, without abbreviations, examples or long explanations, so that each entry can be taken in at a glance.

There are two ways to search this dictionary: by word or by text, through a template that detects possible false friends in an English text. Its online format, open and free of charge, allows interactivity, with users able to make suggestions and criticisms which can be included, where appropriate, in the dictionary.

It only remains to me to thank Lourdes de Rioja for her work as publisher, producer and designer, and Alan Rodger for checking the English lexicon and translating the introduction. Without their ideas, contributions, energy, support and, above all, patience with the author, this fruit of my labours would very likely have finished up at the back of a drawer.

Francisco Hidalgo & Lourdes De Rioja.


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