Wednesday, September 6, 2023

MY WORD! – False Cognates and Other Slips of the Second-Language Tongue

Some 20 years ago, back when I was still trying to boost my Spanish from beginner’s level to intermediate, I got a priceless lesson on what are called false cognates—words that sound like they’d mean the same thing in different languages…but, sometimes tragically, don’t.

I was attending a big wedding reception in La Trinidad, a tiny village just outside of Puebla, Mexico. Sitting at the dining room table in the home of the bride’s parents, along with other members of the family, I needed a break and asked where to find the baño. Following the directions upstairs, I found myself in a small foyer surrounded by several rooms, each separated from the hall by a thick curtain.

For no particular reason I picked door number two and swept open the curtain. The young woman sitting on the toilet five feet in front of me scrambled to cover herself with a handful of toilet paper, but the damage was done. Backing gingerly away, I blurted some form of “Oops!” and waited nervously across the hall.

When she emerged, I clasped both hands to my heart and said earnestly: ¡Estoy tan embarasado! She seemed to accept my apology graciously, which must have been hard for her, since—as I later found out—I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious English-to-Spanish false cognates, and exclaimed “I’m so very pregnant!”

You can bet I learned the real word for “embarrassed,” (It’s avergonzado) and it has stayed learned. There are quite a few other potential slip-ups in Spanish; let’s hope I’ve learned them the easy way.


I recently asked my dear friend and one-time Spanish teacher, Silverio, who moved from Mexico City to Minneapolis about 25 years ago speaking very little English, what some of his most memorable gaffes have been. He recalled many, but these two stand out:

Having dinner with some co-workers, Silverio noticed that the guy across from him had a bit of French fry stuck just above his right eyebrow. Since the Spanish word for that part of one’s face—frente—wasn’t going to work with these all-American boys, he wracked his brain for the right term in English.

Let’s see…fore-…something or other. Oh yeah, got it. Pointing at the spot on his own face, Silverio shouted across the table, “Hey Larry, you’ve got something on your foreskin.”

Silverio, like me with my “pregnancy,” learned that vocabulary word the hard way. (And he’s still avergonzado to this day.)

One day at work he was on the phone with an important prospective customer. When the woman asked him how many people would be assigned to her account, Silverio knew he’d have to discuss the matter with his boss. But his nascent grasp of English word order turned his intended promise into a threat:
“I’ll get you back.”

I can’t address false cognates without thinking of their cousins, malapropisms.* Malapropisms are words—in your own, first language—that don’t quite sound the same as the word you’re grasping for, but are close enough to be funny—and might even slip by unnoticed. Unlike false cognates, there’s no translation involved; you just blurt out the wrong word. Like this classic, from Mrs Malaprop herself: “He is the very pineapple of politeness!” Or this one from Aunt Sally in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “I was most putrified with astonishment.”

What are some of your—or others’—funniest or most mortifying slips of the tongue? We’d love to hear from you!

* The term “malapropism” comes from a character called Mrs. Malaprop, from The Rivals, a 1775 five-act comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Malaprop did, in fact, use words incorrectly as a funny quirk of her character. Her name became the default term for misusing a word. Her name, in turn, comes from the French mal à propos, or “inappropriate.”


Anonymous said...

While working at a health club a doctor new to the area struck up a conversation with me by asking what kind of plant was on the counter. I confidently told him is was Chlamydia. I meant Cyclamen. Didn't realize it until he'd left.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Anonymous, Sep. 6 -- That's hilarious! Do you remember how the doc responded?

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