San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Beware of Treacherous False Friends

We call them “ false friends.” No, they are not those friendly Costa Ricans who so happily give you all the wrong directions when you are trying to find a place. They are words that look and sound like words in English, but mean something quite different in another language. They are words that can make you say the wrong thing and even make you look silly. Try complaining about the preservativos in processed food, and you’ll see what I mean.

Like the subjunctive and irregular verbs, we must deal with their reality, no matter how much we want to argue with them, no matter how perverse they may seem.

Let’s take a look at a sampling of these contrary critters in Costa Rican Spanish: A preservativo is a condom, also known as a condón. If you want to talk about food preservatives, you have to say preservante.

If you want to discuss current events, you do not want to use the word corriente, which means “common” or “ordinary.” To make matters worse, the word for “current” (in the sense of time, not water), actual, is another false friend. So if you want to say “actual,” you’d best use verdadero. And since actualmente means “currently,” if you want to say “actually,” you must use an expression such as de veras, en realidad, de verdad or verdaderamente.

Decepcionar means “to disappoint,” and, by the same token, a decepción is a “disappointment.”

If you want to say “to deceive,” it’s engañar, while “deceit” and “deception” are engaño, and “deceitful” is engañoso.

If you are excited about something, it is not a good idea to say that you are excitado or excitada, which carries the sexual connotation of “aroused.” You are, instead, emocionado or emocionada. Likewise, don’t describe last night’s dance as excitante (unless it was), when what you really mean is emocionante.

Be careful about getting into a discusión. It’s an argument, in the sense of a fight. Familiar is connected with the meaning of “family.” A better word for something “familiar” is conocido.

Rentar means “to yield a profit.” Similarly, the most common meaning of rentable is “profitable.” “To rent” is alquilar, and, strangely, el alquiler is “the rent.”

Vicioso means “depraved” or “full of vices.” A vicious dog is a perro bravo.

Afección refers to a disease or some other sort of medical condition. The word for “affection” is cariño.

Don’t go thinking your friend’s 14-year-old is a genius because he goes to el colegio.

In Costa Rica, a colegio is usually a high school, although once in a while it is used as a general term for “school.” “College” in Spanish is la universidad, whether it contains a graduate school or not.

Even the names of the high school grades are confusing. With the exception of some special programs, students graduate after completing 11th grade, but since they have an extra grade at the elementary level, they complete just as many grades. Usually, however, everybody starts counting again when students come out of sixth grade and begin el colegio. Thus, seventh grade is primero, eighth grade is segundo, ninth grade is tercero, 10th grade is cuarto and 11th grade is quinto.

High school and college degrees are called títulos (a word that is another can of worms). At the end of their last year of high school, Costa Ricans take a test to obtain their bachillerato degree. We traditionally translate this word as “baccalaureate,” rather than “bachelor.” A four- or five-year college degree is a licenciatura, and the recipient of this degree is a licenciado or licenciada.

If you tell a Spanish speaker that Texas is largo, he will think it looks like Chile. Largo means “long” in English. “Large” is grande.

Be careful with this one! While in English a violator may simply be someone who drives too fast, in Spanish a violador is a rapist. Violar means “to rape.”

And don’t go thinking that if your Tico friend comments on how sano you are, he is surprised you are not crazy. Sano means “healthy.” “Sane” is cuerdo or sensato.

If you are sensible, you are not “sensible”; you are “sensitive.” If you tell someone he is sensitivo, you will be telling him, to his great confusion, that he is capable of using his five senses. “Sensible” may be sensato, cuerdo, razonable or de buen sentido.

“Library” in Spanish is biblioteca. A librería is technically a “bookstore,” which seems to be neither here nor there in Costa Rica, where librerías typically sell school supplies.

Someone who asks for your firma is not trying to take over your business. He only wants your signature. A “business firm” is an empresa, compañía or casa comercial.

If somebody wants to know if you asiste a clases, he’s not asking if you are teacher’s little helper. Asistir (a) in Spanish means “to attend.” “To assist” is ayudar.

Éxito means “success.”An “exit” in Spanish is a salida. To add insult to injury, the word suceso means “event.”

You had better not go around telling people you are embarazado or embarazada, unless you are pregnant.What you can say if you’re embarrassed is “Estoy avergonzado” or “Tengo vergüenza.”

These are, as I said, only a sampling of false friends. But hey, did you know that there are fickle friends as well as false friends?

Stay tuned.


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