San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cunning Cognates: A Conspiracy of Language

It must be a conspiracy – the way language tries to confuse us, that is.

Why? Well, if we say acontecimiento actual in Spanish, we don’t mean “actual event,” but “current event.” Then, if we say acontecimiento corriente, we don’t mean “current event,” but “common event.” These maddening words are what many call “false friends,” that is, those words that look the same or nearly the same as English words but have different meanings. They look helpful, but they are really traitors.

The plot thickens; the conspiracy gets worse. It turns out that there are look-alikes that are even trickier than false friends. They are usually called “fickle friends,” but I think a better name for them is “cunning cognates.” These are words that are roughly synonymous with English words (thus making them cognates) but have a different connotation, or that are synonymous some of the time but not always. In other words, they are a lot trickier than false friends.

To take an example, let’s look at molestar (to bother), which looks like the English verb “to molest.” In English, in fact, “molest” can mean “to bother,” at least in its negative sense, as in the sentence, “They continued on their journey unmolested.” But far more often, the English word has a connotation of sexual abuse that is absent in Spanish.

Now, let’s take a look at some of these other tricksters:

Acción is usually synonymous with the various meanings of “action.” But to a stockbroker it can also mean a “share” or “stock,” and to an artist it can be a “pose.” Incidentally, for some reason, Thanksgiving Day is “Día de Acción de Gracias.”

Afección can refer to affection for somebody or something. But far more commonly it refers to a disease or some other sort of medical condition. The best word for “affection” is cariño, although another cognate, afecto, also exists.

Agonía can refer simply to “extreme distress,” as it does in English, but in Spanish it usually means the final stages of death.

Aplicar does mean “to apply,” as in an ointment or a theory, and aplicarse means “to apply oneself.” But if you’re applying for a job, use solicitar (although there is some regional usage of aplicar). Similarly, an application for a job, membership, etc., is a solicitud.

Aprobar, as in English, means “to approve” or “to consent.” However, it also means “to pass,” in the sense of passing a test.

Arena, in sports, can refer to an arena. But it is more commonly used as the word for “sand.”

Argumento and its verb form, argumentar, refer to the type of argument or line of reasoning a lawyer might make. It can also refer to the theme of a book, play or similar work. On the other hand, a quarrel is a discusión or disputa, and a discussion is a conversación.

Balance, balanceo and balancear can sometimes be translated as “balance,” but they most often refer to a swinging or oscillation. Words with meanings more closely related to the English “balance” include balanza, equilibrio, equilibrar and, in reference to the balance of an amount of money, saldo and saldar.

Collar is used when referring to the collar a pet might wear, and it also can also refer to a ringlike mechanical item. For the most part, however, collar is the word for “necklace.” The collar of a shirt, jacket or similar type of apparel is a cuello (the word for “neck”).

Conciencia, just as it appears, means “conscience” in Spanish. Unfortunately, it is also the Spanish word for “consciousness.” This wreaks havoc in metaphysical discussions.

Conducir can mean “to conduct” or, in the reflexive form conducirse, “to conduct oneself.” But it more often means “to drive” or “to transport.” For that reason, a conductor on a train or other vehicle is the person in the driving seat, not someone who handles tickets.

Confidencia is a Spanish word related to the English meaning of “confidence” as a secret. For confidence or trust in someone, confianza is the word to use.

Criatura most commonly means “creature” or “being,” including humans. But it is also commonly used to refer to babies and even to fetuses.

Demandar and the noun form demanda, as a legal term only, are equal to the English “demand” or “lawsuit.” Demanda is also used to mean “to be in demand,” in the expression tener demanda. But to demand something in a less formal situation, exigir or the noun exigencia is used.

Dirección usually means “direction” in most of the ways it is used in English. But it is also the word for a postal or e-mail address.

Etiqueta can refer to etiquette and the requirements of formality. However, it also means “tag,” “price tag” or “label.” The verb form etiquetar means “to label.”

Excitado can be synonymous with “excited,” but a closer equivalent is “sexually aroused.” Better translations of “excited” include emocionado and, usually in a slightly negative sense, agitado.

Experimentar is what scientists and other people do when they’re trying something out. However, the word also means “to experience.”

Familiar in Spanish is more closely connected with the meaning of “family” than in English. A better word to use for something familiar is conocido (“known”) or común (“common”).

Formal can, in fact, mean “formal,” “serious” or “in proper form,” as in English, but it also means “proper” or “correct.” More importantly, its opposite, informal, means “ill-behaved” and “unreliable,” rather than “casual.” Then again, casual means “accidental” or “coincidental.” To say “casual,” it is better to use relajado or despreocupado. Then again, casual clothing is ropa de sport.

And around and around we go. Stay tuned until the next time for the rest of the list.

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