San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The ‘However Words’: Beware of Fickle Friends

If false friends are words that look and sound like words in English, but mean something quite different in another language, what are fickle friends?

Sometimes I call them the “however words.”They are words that look and sound like words in English, and, in fact, in some sense have the same meaning as words in English; however, they are different in another sense.

That’s confusing. Examples work better.

Take la cuestión. If we are talking about “the question of the free-trade agreement,” we might say “la cuestión del TLC (tratado de libre comercio).”However, to ask a question is preguntar, and the question we are asking is la pregunta.

Let’s look at some others:

If you want to apply an ointment, you can use aplicar. But if you’re applying for a job, solicitar is the word you want.An application for a job or something else is a solicitud.

In sports, an arena can be an “arena.” But most of the time, arena is that great stuff we find on the beach, “sand.”

Argumento and its verb form, argumentar, refer to the type of argument a lawyer might make. Argumento can also refer to the theme of a book, play or similar work. However, a quarrel is a discusión or disputa.

A collar is, as in English, the collar of a pet. However, it is also the word for “necklace,” while the collar of a shirt is a cuello, the word for “neck.”

Confidencia and confidencial, as in English, imply something secret. If you’re referring to confidence or trust in someone, however, confianza is the appropriate word.

Confiar en means “to trust” or “to have confidence in.”

Dirección usually means “direction” in most of the ways it is used in English.

However, it is also the word for something practically nonexistent in Costa Rica: “street address.”

Experimentar is what scientists do in both languages when they’re trying something out. However, the word also means “to experience” or “to feel.”

Conciencia means “conscience” in English.

Unfortunately, it is also the word for “consciousness,” which can cause a great deal of confusion.

You can introducir a law, but not a person.

It can only be translated as “to introduce” in the sense of “to bring in,” “to begin,” “to put” or “to place.” Presentar, another fickle friend, which corresponds to “to present” in English, is what we use when we want to introduce one person to another.

Of course, poverty is misery, but so are a lot of other things in English. Miseria in Spanish, however, specifically indicates extreme poverty.

All of one’s relatives are parientes in Spanish. To refer to parents explicitly, use padres.

Propaganda can have the negative feeling of the English word, but it often simply means “advertising.”

Rodeo can sometimes refer to our kind of “rodeo.” However, it comes from the verb rodear, which means “to go around,” and usually indicates an encirclement, a stockyard or an indirect path. Note the expression: ¡Basta de rodeos! “Enough beating around the bush!”

Típico can mean “typical,” without the negative feeling that the English word often has. More importantly, típico means “traditional” or “having the characteristics of the local area.” Thus, if you see a restaurant offering comida típica, expect gallo pinto and picadillo.

A tortilla is indeed a tortilla, unless it’s a tortilla de huevo, in which case it’s an omelet.

Soportar is often better translated as “to tolerate” or “to endure” than “to support.” A better verb to mean “support” is sostener (a word for “brassiere” is sostén) in the sense of supporting weight, and apoyar in the sense of supporting a friend.

Both “suburbs” and suburbios can refer to areas outside the city, but in Spanish the word usually has the negative connotation of “slums.”

As a legal term only, demandar and the noun form, la demanda, are similar to the English “demand” or “lawsuit.” However, to demand something outside of a legal situation, use exigir and the noun form exigencia.

Marcar usually means “to mark” in some way. It can mean “to dial” a telephone, “to score” in a game and even “to notice.”

However, the noun marca means “brand name” or “trademark,” while a marco is a window, door or picture frame.

Etiqueta can refer to etiquette. However, it also means “tag” or “label.” The verb form, etiquetar, means “to label.”

Given that the letters B and V are inter-changeable in Spanish, it is not surprising to find that probar means “to prove.” However, it also means “to try,” “to try on” (clothing), and “to taste” (food).

A título is indeed a “title,” as of a book, but it is also a diploma or degree.

As in English, conducir can mean “to conduct”or (in the reflexive form conducirse) “to conduct oneself.” Likewise, conducta means “behavior.” It can also mean “to lead” or “to guide” and “to lead to.” Most importantly, it means “to drive,” as in drive a car, or “to transport.” For that reason, a conductor of a vehicle is the chauffeur or engineer.

The word manejar is similar. Just as it seems, it can mean “to manage,” “to run” (as a business), or “to handle.” However, like conducir, it means “to drive,” although conductor remains the word for “chauffeur.”

So much for all our false and fickle friends.As long as they remain our friends in some ways, I believe we’ll manage to get along with each other.


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