Speaking Chilensis: beware the Fake False Cognates

It’s time for another lesson in Chilensis, in Chilean Spanish, and in those sneaky little false cognates that can trick you into saying things you really had no intention of saying at all.  And as every language learner discovers, just when you least expect it, you’re bound to stumble—or even dive headlong—into the quirky linguistic pitfalls of new language acquisition. And since I’ve probably fallen into and crawled red-faced out of most of them, I thought I’d pass along a little more advice on staying out of linguistic trouble.

Once again from the “boy was my face red” school of learning Spanish by experience, I bring you yet another chapter of dumb stuff the gringa said:

We’ve already flirted with frugal and explored the cynical vs cínico, and by now there’s certainly no reason to even get into embarrassed vs embarazada (if you don’t know the difference, go look it up right now! Or you will most certainly be embarrassed, although that in itself will probably not make you embarazada).

But oh there are plenty more treacherous traps of the tongue just lying in wait. Lots more. Here are a handful for today’s giggles at the gringa’s expense.

Support vs Soportar (v): The two look pretty close, don’t they? Uh-uh. Nix-Nay-Nein, and No po’. Support, as in to hold, to help, to back up, to stand behind, to keep from falling, to provide for… right? Take a look in your bilingual dictionary and you get ayudar, apoyar, respaldar, and mantener. Not a single soportar in the lot. OK, so now try the other way. Look up soportar and you get withstand, endure, put up with, tolerate. Yikes!

How well I remember how I learned—the hard way, of course—about this seemingly innocent pair. Many years ago, when I was still pretty much a babe in the Spanish-speaking woods, I was interviewing a woman who had been the victim of human rights violations. I wanted to know what kind of support her group received from other countries and asked “¿Cómo les soportan?” She jerked upright, looked at me kind of funny, smiled to herself, and answered my question. I didn’t get it at the time, but months later—and at a much better level of Spanish—I was transcribing the interview tape and was horrified to hear myself ask the equivalent of “How do they stand you?” Lord… How did SHE stand all the Spanish-deficient do-gooders who kept showing up at her door?

And then there are those words that are probably not really false cognates in a true linguistic sense, although in the every day practical sense they work the same way. Hmm, I guess that makes them Fake False Cognates.


Ha! News Flash! I just coined a brand new expression! I just googled “fake false cognates” and got zip! Specifically:

No results found for “fake false cognates”.
And you read it here first! The fake false cognates are mine… feel free to write me up a wiki for that one!
Ok, back to business:


There are a number of words that seem to be the same, and even technically ARE the same, although common usage dictates that the first sense that comes to your listener’s mind may not be the first one comes to yours.

Ordinary vs Ordinario (adj): Once again. The hard way. I made a comment to the same group of women about them being mujeres ordinarias. Even now I cringe to think about it! No, no, and NO. Do NOT say that to perfectly nice, ordinary, everyday grandmotherly type older women. They don’t like it. And neither would you. While “ordinary” just refers to some normal, usual, or common sort of person or thing, and while my friend the DRAE tells me some pretty similar things up front, it quite quickly gets to the part about bajo, basto, vulgar y de poca estimación. Even if you don’t speak much Spanish, you did get the part about vulgar, right? Yes indeed. In Chile that’s the definition they jump to first, so I basically told these kindly wives and mothers that they were pretty low class losers with innuendos of questionable virtues and loose mores. I swear it’s a good thing that there had been a long line of well-meaning language innocents who had come before me, so I’m sure they had heard it all before or worse, or they would have thrown me out right then and there!

Regular vs Regular (adj): Couldn’t possibly be more alike, right? Twins even… except one is REG-u-ler, and the other is reg-u-LAR. The first describes your average, normal (ok, ordinary) kind of things: coffee, car, style, student, grades, while in the latter (read Chilean) case, regular is just not good enough. It turns out that reg-u-LAR is pretty not-so-good. A student who is reg-u-LAR might not graduate. Someone whose style is reg-u-LAR is pretty sub-par among those who care about such things. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever called anyone reg-u-LAR when I didn’t mean it.

At least not yet…

Want to know more silly stuff that gringas say? And hey–this is not just for laughs! This is serious stuff… we’re cluing you in on ways that YOU can avoid making the same mistakes! (And this works in both directions–all you Spanish speakers will (1) have a clue as to what we really mean to say and (2) turn it around to avoid making the mistake when speaking English!

Check out:
Abby takes a sinus infection to heart… er… breast: “You have an infection WHERE?”
Clare muses on teenaged self defense : “Not quite there: Commentary on Communication

27 responses to “Speaking Chilensis: beware the Fake False Cognates

  1. “¿Cómo les soportan?”

    Now that is very, very funny! Yes, false cognates can be very, very tricky!

    I think embarazada vs. embarrassed might be the most often confused and the most hilarious!

  2. Yeah, really, ¿como les soportan? Pretty embarrassing (though certainly NOT embarazante)… ah the things a gringa will say!

  3. I love the term fake false cognates! It’s perfect for describing words like ordinario (which is one of my all time favorite words in Spanish). Another one I can think of is “popular”. I have my own funny story about one…I think I’ll blog it and link to you.

  4. My students always think –molestar–molest is a funny false cognate. Ordinario and popular are both good ones. One thing that confused me for a while was the use of “natural” for room temp (as in drinks). That is definitely not natural… coke should only be drunk with ice.

  5. Abby- I loved your post about your mysterious infection! (I’ve linked it in)
    Annje- oh yeah, Chile’s famous “Coca natural”. That one really confused me the first time I heard it–I could not for the life of me figure out what could possible be “natural” about Coca Cola!

  6. I told someone once while stretching that I wasn’t very “flexible” and they stared at me. A friend later said that I probably wanted to use elástico/a because that would be the flexibility referred to when stretching. I’m still stumped because wordreference.com backs me up.

    Oh and then another time with my boyfriend I was trying to explain how verdadero something was, but I forgot that word so I said “real”. He looked puzzled and said it was a funny usage of the word because it normally refers to royalty and such, but can also sometimes be used to talk about verdadero things.

  7. Hi Sara- Good examples!
    Even RAE backs you up on “flexible” (able to bend easily), although it seems to be used more to describe someone’s character and willingness to accept ideas and opinions of others (so maybe it was your friend who wasn’t very flexible!)
    Same goes for “real.” The first definition in the RAE is “Que tiene existencia verdadera y efectiva” followed by the royal stuff… but I suppose the context will clue the listener which one you mean and therein lies the confusion.
    Any way you look at it, language is not terribly precise, is it?

  8. I first learned soportar as “insoportable” for a bratty child (my host sister in Ecuador), so I never had the pleasure to screw that up. But this weekend I had the joy to learn scrupuloso as easily grossed out by sharing germy things. I’d have said quisquilloso or manioso, but I guess scrupuloso sounds fancier, plus you can confuse gringos galore!

    Love language posts, as you know!

  9. oh, and by the way “flexible” in English I always hear said as “tener buena elongación.”

  10. Hi Eileen- well I have to admit that here is yet ANOTHER false cognate that I would have fallen for… I asked my resident Chilensis expert about scrupuloso (got corrected- it’s EScrupuloso) and in addition to telling me to check the RAE, he agreed with your definition… but it goes farther, not just with food and cleanliness, but someone who is obsessive about complying with rules in general. He also added that unlike English, where it is used in a generally positive sense to refer to acting according to ethics and values, here it takes on a negative connotation of being excessive. Sound a bit like OCD to me!

  11. ah yes, of course, escrupuloso. It would have to be. I am not very, I suppose, thus the error! Thanks!

  12. Hi! I jut found this blog and I couldn’t resist to comment because I am suffering from these false cognates as a Chilean living in USA.
    The most funny for me before coming USA was the willingness of gringos arriving Chile to explain his/her “sexual mood”:
    “Estoy mucho exitadou/excitada de estar en Shilei!!!”.
    Very easy to get confused uh? Excitado or excitada most of the time means being Horny. So, be careful.. You can use “estoy contento/contenta” instead.
    Other false cognates I remember:
    Chauvinism(Chovinismo), in its original and primary meaning, is an exaggerated, bellicose patriotism (wikipedia). the other is Machista (comes from macho=male).
    Other false cognates are used as correct Spanish words by latino community here( and that pissed me off a little bit. 🙂 some of the most common ones are:
    to apply= aplicar instead of postular.
    to attend= atender instead of asistir
    insulation= insulación instead of aislación

    Good bye and keep commenting

  13. Hi Mauro- Ha-ha- these are some great examples of true Spanglish! I remember a Chilean friend commenting that her mother-in-law (Chilean-born but long time resident in US) would say things like “estoy freezando” when she was very cold!
    One comment on your gringo imitation though–we wouldn’t say “Shilei,” it would be more “Chili”… remember that English has a very pronounced difference between CH and SH and the confusion happens more on the part of Spanish speakers, where there is no such difference (like us with the difference between r and rr as in pero and perro) Also, most English-speakers don’t get that the “e” on the end should sound like an “ay” and instead pronounce it like “ee” and in chili pepper…
    But I had to laugh at the u on the end of the “exitadou” because that’s something I never had any idea we did until my suegra started imitating the way I said “nou” instead of “no” Who knew?

  14. “Como les soportan?”

    Haha, she had a good sense of humour! Thanks for the laugh and great articles. I never realised the difference in usage of cynical!

    The following example is a Portuguese-Spanish false cognate so excuse me if it isn’t exactly in line, though inattentive pronunciation could have the same result: Having arrived for the first time in Chile and meeting the children of a summer camp, they asked me how old I was. Now I was relying on my vestigial Portuguese knowledge which had served me thus far, so I confidently replied: “Tengo 18 anos”. Oh the joy of the children and the hilarity that ensued was tremendous. Cheeky devils didn’t tell me until they had made sure everyone at the camp knew “how old I was”.

  15. Hi Thomas- Thanks for writing… glad you enjoyed it… I’m collecting more for future posts, so stay tuned!
    I have to confess that I was a bit slow in getting your story–re-read it a number of times and then discovered the missing “ñ” in años! Oops! Yes, I could see how that would totally crack up a summer camp full of kids! ha-ha-ha… that’s one way to get the fun rolling!

  16. Thomas,

    Tengo 18 anos

    Wow, that certainly is a lot of “anos” to have, he he. I can’t believe I am laughing at that, I feel like one of those summer camp kids.

  17. At the risk of sounding snotty, “popular” can be kind of a false cognate…. like una playa popular may not have the crowds you were expecting!!! Instead of referring to something “taquillera” and cool, it can mean more plebian. Like Zapallar vs. Cartagena.

  18. Absolutely! Here in Chile “popular” is usually something that teenage girls do NOT want to be!

  19. Margaret :
    Espero estes bien justo a tu familia y amistades despues de este terrible terremoto en Chile.
    Mis oraciones estan con ustedes.
    Un abrazo.

  20. Gracias Solange.
    Sí, toda mi familia está bien y estamos entre los afortunados que no hemos sufrido mayores problemas.
    Pero lamentablemente, no se puede decir lo mismo para grandes partes del sur. Talca y Concepción están en muy malas condiciones.
    Un abrazo para todos…

  21. Found you through the Guardian…studied in Chile and anxious for news of friends on the coast…my contribution to the language thing is enojar vs. enjoy–the professor I was trying to compliment said it was probably a freudian slip!

  22. Hi Shannon- hope you’ve found your friends… were they in the south?
    Enojar vs enjoy… hahaha… I can just imagine your professor’s face!

  23. Busque demasiada informacion sobre el tema para un trabajo de la universidad asi que se del tema y quiero decirte que estoy muy de acuerdo con lo que dices. Saludos

  24. @Conust: Interesante… Estudias linguistica?
    A pesar de mis intentos a presentarlo con un poco de humor…se trata de temas realmente importantes! Gracias por dejar tu comentario y por supuesto, no dudas en dejar otros ejemplos si quieres!

  25. Pingback: Reguleque and Twitter-whining: How to Commit “Twittercide” in just 35 Characters | Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  26. Pingback: You have an infection WHERE? « Abby's Line

  27. Pingback: Cynical or Cínico? | Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s