How to Be Taken Seriously in a Spanish-Speaking Country (Part 1)

When Americans go abroad to a Spanish-speaking country, it’s important to be able to speak some Spanish. You have to know there are words in Spanish that resemble words in English. These words are called “false cognates” or “false friends.” Knowing the real Spanish words can mean the difference from getting laughed at or getting dumped in a garbage disposal.

In my junior year in college, I was taking my fourth semester of Spanish. I decided to try it out in a room filled with natives from Spanish-speaking countries. I had some shoes that had sand in them. So, as I was clapping the shoes together over a garbage can, I said quickly and proudly, “Tengo arena en mis zapatos” (“I have sand in my shoes.”) A second later, the whole room exploded into laughter. Why is that funny? Apparently, they heard, “Tengo que orinar en mis zapatos” (“I have to pee in my shoes.”)

What a difference! My mistake was trying to speak too fast! The word “arena” (sand) sounded like “orinar” (to pee).

I don’t want you to make the same mistake. So, I have been composing a list of Spanish words that you need to be familiar with, so that you won’t end up like me, or worse.

actual- now, present day, not “actual”

arena- sand, not “arena”

asistir- to attend, not “to assist”

bárbaro- terrible, bummer, not “barber who cuts hair.”

boda- wedding, not “body”

borrar- erase, not “boring”

bicho- bug, not the “b word”

bigote- mustache, not “bigot”

campo- field or countryside, not “camp”

cara- face, not “car”

caro- expensive, not “car”

carpeta- folder, not”carpet”

carta- letter, not “cart”

chocar- to hit, run into, not “choke”

complexión- skin, not “complexion”

cornudo- corn, but cuckold.

duda- doubt, not “dude”

embarazada- pregnant, not “embarrassed”

éxito- success, not “exit”

firma- signature, not “firm”

grabar- to record, not “grab”

grasa- fat in body, not “grass”

letra- letter, not “letter you write”

librería- bookshop, not “library”

lujuria- lust, not “luxury”

mama- breast, not “mom”

mano- hand, not “man”

mesa- table, not “mess”

molestar- to bother, not “to molest”

nudo- knot, not “nude”

papa- potato, not “father”

pariente- relative, not “parent”

pie- foot, not piece of “pie”

playa- beach, not “play”

puro- cigar, not “pure”

popa- boat’s stern, not “Pope”

raro- strange, not “rare”

rato- while, not “rat”

red- network, not the color

ropa- clothing, clothes, not “rope”

sandia- watermelon, not “sand”

sin -without, not “sin”

tipo- guy, not “tip” like leaving money for waiter

vaso-g lass (of water), not “vase”

Got it? Are you ready for your trip? Not quite! There are other words you need to know, which I will save for an upcoming article. In the meantime, study the words I have listed. Don’t buy your plane ticket to any Spanish-speaking country just yet!