Tutorial index  Spanish-English Dictionary  English-Spanish Dictionary  Spanish grammar  Simple Spanish vocab  Traducción profesional

Tricky words and "false friends" in Spanish

In this section, we look at various words that, for one reason or another, can cause difficulty for English-speaking learners of Spanish (and in some cases, for foreign learners of Spanish in general). Various of these words can cause difficulty because the look like a particular English word, but don't have exactly the same meaning (or sometimes have a completely different meaning).


This word doesn't mean avocado, but lawyer, solicitor, attorney. In most Spanish-speaking countries, the Spanish for avocado is aguacate.

abuso, abusar

The verb abusar often means to overdo it, to use/consume in excess. For example: abusar del tabaco essentially means to smoke too much; abusar del queso means to eat too much cheese etc. Similarly, abuso often means overuse, excessive consumption.

However, abusar can still mean to abuse, either as in "to misuse, take advantage of" (e.g. abusar de su posición = to abuse one's position), or as in "to molest, sexually abuse". And the noun abuso can have corresponding meanings, often translated by abuse.

acertar, acertado

This verb generally means to hit (the target), as well as "get right" or "get it right" (cf the English expression hit the nail on the head). To say assert (as in "state"), you could use the Spanish verb afirmar. Other possibilities include verificar (with the meaning of "verify") or insistir en (with the meaning of "stress" or "insist"). A possible translation for to assert oneself is imponerse.

actual, actualmente

The word actual means present, current, topical, fashionable etc; hence, actualmente covers meanings such as at present, currently, nowadays.

To say actual, a common word is real: what is the actual figure? = ¿cuál es el número real?; actually is often conveyed by the phrase en realidad or realmente.


The Spanish word arena generally means sand. It is occasionally used to mean arena in the sporting sense, but usually when talking in the historic sense of a Roman arena. An arena in the general sense of "stadium" is usually un estadio, and the arena of a circus would generally be referred to as la pista.


The Spanish word campo usually means either field (either in the agricultural sense or in other senses such as "sports field", "oilfield" etc) or countryside. It can also mean "field" in the figurative sense of "subject", "domain" (el campo de la medicina = the field of medicine), "range" in various mathematical/scientific uses (campo visual = field of vision), and in various computing senses (in a window or on a database).

For camp, either campo or campamento are generally used: for example both campamento de verano or campo de verano exist (for "holiday camp"); similarly, camp(ament)o de trabajo, camp(ament)o de refugiados. Of the two, campo possibly suggests a more "military" sense.


The word cantina doesn't usually mean a canteen in the sense of a communcal eating place in a factory or business. Depending on the country, a cantina is usually a type of bar or budget restaurant. The Spanish word for canteen is usually comedor.


The Spanish word carpeta generally means either folder (either for paper, or in the computing sense of "directory"), or briefcase.

The Spanish word for carpet is usually alfombra.


The word carta usually means letter, menu or map. It is also used in various administrative senses, where it can mean bill, deed, charter.

The word carta is not the usual word for card, which is tarjeta. (So, for example, a credit card is una tarjeta de crédito.) However, carta is used for a card in games (either actual playing cards, or something like the instruction cards in monopoly etc).


The Spanish word collar is a collar in the sense of necklace. A shirt collar would be referred to with the word cuello.


The word competencia is commonly used to mean competition. However, it can also mean competence as in English (both in the sense of "ability", and in the legal sense of "jurisdiction").


The word compromiso generally means commitment or (moral) obligation, as well as engagement (to be married). However, it can also mean mutual agreement, compromise.


This word doesn't generally mean the same as English concourse. Probably the most common meaning is competition, contest; it can also mean cooperation.


In Spanish, the word conferencia can refer to a single talk or lecture, as well as a whole conference (in the political or academic sense).


As well as meaning courage, the word coraje can mean anger, rage (me da coraje means something like it makes me sick, it makes me mad).


This word means what UK speakers call a CV (from the Latin curriculum vitae), and what US speakers generally call a resumé.

A educational curriculum, in the sense of a "prescribed program of study", would generally be referred to in Spanish as a programa (de estudios) (está en el programa = it's on the curriculum).

decepción, decepcionado

These words mean disappointment, disappointed respectively. The Spanish for deception is generally engaño, from the verb engañar ("to deceive").

delito, deleite

These similar-looking words mean completely different things. The first means crime, misdemeano(u)r; the second means delight, pleasure.

desgracia, desgraciar, desgraciado

The word desgracia essentially means bad luck, misfortune (either referring to an unfortunate event or the result/feeling caused by that event). It doesn't generally mean disgrace, except in the phrase caer en desgracia ("to fall from grace", "to lose favo(u)r"). The verb desgraciar generally means something close to ruin, spoil. The adjective desgraciado generally means unfortunate, wretched, fully of misery.

The Spanish for disgrace is generally deshonra or vergüenza, with the verb deshonrar (to disgrace). To say what a disgrace!, that's a disgrace!, you could use ¡qué escándalo!.


The word dirección means direction, as you might expect, either in the sense of way, orientation or in the sense of management, act of directing.

However, it is also the word for address (either in the sense of postal address or in the computing sense of "memory location").

discutir, discusión

The verb discutir means either argue or "discuss" as in debate, thrash out. To convey the meaning of discuss as in simply "talk about", hablar/platicar de... are often closer.

A similar point goes for discusión: the word often implies a fairly "heated" discussion, argument or debate, and the word conversación is often more suitable to imply a fairly 'neutral' discussion.

disgusto, disgustar, disgustado

The verb disgustar essentially means to upset, cause upset/displeasure to; hence digustado essentially means upset, displeased.

As well as meaning upset, displeasure, the word disgusto can also mean row, argument.

The Spanish verb repugnar carries the meaning of English disgust.


Especially in Spain, this word is used for a bedroom (or a set of bedroom furniture). A dormitory would generally be referred to as a residencia (and in full form, a student dorm would be a residencia de estudiantes).


The word educación can be used to refer to school education, as in English education. The Spanish word enseñanza often has a similar meaning.

Unlike the English word education, the Spanish word educación can also refer to upbringing or manners. Similarly, describing a person as bien educado would imply that they are well-mannered, polite, of good upbringing rather than well "educated" in the sense of having dedicated a lot of time to studies.

embarazar, embarazado, embarazo

The verb embarazar has three meanings which, depending on your point of view, are quite different. The most common is to get pregnant. However, the verb can also mean either to embarrass or to hinder.

Therefore, the adjective embarazado commonly means pregnant, although it could also mean embarrassed. The noun embarazo commonly means pregnancy, but can also mean hinderance or embarrassment.


In Spanish, this word often conveys the notion of excitement. For example: ¡qué emoción! means something like how exciting!, that's really exciting!. Similarly, emocionado generally means excited.


This word means success; the Spanish for exit is, of couse, salida.


The word fábrica generally means factory, mill, works, referring to the building where something is manufactured. It can also refer manufacturing or production, though fabricación is also used with that sense.

The Spanish word for fabric is generally tela.


The word falta essentially means lack, absence; it is related to the verb faltar meaning to be missing, not be enough. The general word for fault in the sense of "flaw", "defect" is fallo (especially in Spain) or falla (especially in Latin America). In the sense of "blame", fault would usually be culpa. To say it's not my fault, common expressions are yo no tengo la culpa or no es culpa mína.

Occasionally, the English word fault means something like "shortcoming", "lack of something", especially when referring to a person. In that sense, a possible Spanish translation would be falta (another possibility is defecto). For example, in Spain (but not usually in Latin America), the expression sacarle faltas a alguien is sometimes used to mean to find fault with sb.

In sport, falta means foul (and in some games, the English word fault is also used with this sense).


This word generally means purpose, rather than "finality".


In English, "ignore" always means to deliberately disregard or take no notice of. In Spanish, ignorar can also have this meaning. However, it can also mean to unintentionally not know about something.


This word means unbelievable, incredible; note that it doesn't have a d in Spanish!


This word means the opposite of English inhabitable! In the English word inhabitable, the in- is a suffix used to form the word inhabit. The opposite, uninhabitable, is formed with the prefix un-. In Spanish, the basic verb is habitar and the basic adjective habitable. And in Spanish, the prefix in- is the equivalent of English un-, giving the opposite inhabitable = uninhabitable.

injuria, injuriar

In everyday Spanish, the word injuria means verbal abuse, insults. It is also used in the plural, in a similar way to English insults. It is also used in the legal sense of slander. Similarly, the verb injuriar means to insult, verbally abuse (or to slander).

The word for injury is usually herida or lesión; to injure would usually be lastimar or herir. To say he was injured in the accident, you could say fue/se quedó herido en el accidente.

Just very occasionally, in literary use, these words are found with a meaning similar to damage, injury. For example, the expression desafiar las injurias del tiempo would mean something like to defy aging, to defy the passage of time.


The word lectura, connected to the verb leer, means reading. A lecture is usually a conferencia.


Usually, this word means bookshop, bookstore rather than referring to a place where you can borrow books. The word for library in the sense of "place where you can refer to or borrow books" is generally biblioteca; other portmanteau words based on -teca are springing up, so a media library could be a mediateca.

For library in the sense of "general collection of books/things", librería is sometimes used. For library in the computing sense of "suite of routines", both librería and biblioteca are used. A current Google search estimate gives 19,800 results for librería de funciones vs 25,500 results for biblioteca de funciones.

Particularly in Spain, librería can mean bookcase; in Mexico, the word is usually librero, whilst biblioteca is reportedly used in the rest of Latin America (cf Diccionario americano de dudas frecuentes de la lengua española (Spanish Edition), p. 159).


The word oración can mean prayer (like the rare English word oration), and also sentence. Another common word for sentence is the feminine word frase.


The Spanish word parientes refers to (family) relations in general. To say my parents, used mis padres or, more informally, mis papás.


The word real can mean either real or royal!


The Spanish verb realizar generally means to carry out, fulfil (in a sense, "make real"). It's sometimes a posh way of saying hacer. The pronominal form realizarse often means to come about, come true, come to fruition (e.g. se realizaron mis sueños = my dreams came true).

To say realise, a common expression is darse cuenta. For example me di cuenta de que... = I realised that...; no nos dimos cuenta = we didn't realise.


This word generally means sentence in the legal sense. A sentence as a unit of writing or speech is usually una frase or una oración.

suceder, suceso

The verb suceder generally means to happen. Following from this meaning, the noun suceso generally means event or thing that happened. The expression todo un suceso means something like a commotion, something of a spectacle, and could have either a positive or negative sense. So just very occasionally, a possible translation could be success.

But normally, a success is un éxito (not to be confused with the word for exit, which is salida!). To say succeed in the sense of be a success, the usual phrase is tener éxito (to talk about either a person or an event, film etc) or ser un éxito (usually if talking about a party, film etc).

The expression suceder a can also mean to succeed in the sense of "to come after". Then, sucesivo, sucesivamente generally mean what you'd expect.


The word trampa usually means trap or trick. The phrase hacer trampa means to cheat.

The word for tramp (as in a vagrant) is usually vagabundo (or vagabunda for a female).


The word vaso usually means (drinking) glass. It can also have a more general sense of receptacle, so a vase could just about be un vaso (para flores). But usually, the Spanish word for vase is florero.

comments powered by Disqus

 Spanish tutorial index
 Spanish-English dictionary
 English-Spanish dictionary

Page and Java applet written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Neil Coffey 2013. All rights reserved.