Last updateFri, 15 Jan 2021 2pm

Wrestling with Spanish: compliments as insults and beguiling false cognates

One of the easiest traps to fall into when learning Spanish is to think that words with more or less the same spelling actually have the same meaning in both English and Spanish.

Take a simple word like “actually.” In Spanish, actualmente means “at present,” while in English “actually” means either “really” or “in fact.” And now that we’ve mentioned the word, the English “trap” is not trapo in Spanish. Trapo means “a wash rag” or “cleaning rag.”

Every single cognate needs to be checked carefully on two counts: 1) the exact meaning in both languages and 2) the intensity of meaning in both English and Spanish. On the second point, Spanish-language teachers will point out that the words “stupid” and estupido do not convey the same level of insult in the two languages. The Spanish estupido is considerably more forceful than the English-language “idiot.”

Many words that seem, at first glance, the same actually mean the opposite — or something very close to it. For instance, the Spanish gracioso does not mean “gracious” in English. As a matter of fact, gracioso is hardly a compliment since it means “funny” and usually carries negative undertones. Likewise, “grass” is not grasa, which means “oil” or “grease.” Pasto is probably the safest word for “grass.”

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