We all want to sound intelligent speaking another language, but even if you’re pretty familiar with a foreign language, you can still make mistakes. Take for example my friend who grew up with Canadian French as a second language, who, during her first year living abroad in France with her French fiancée, would announce at the end of every family meal, “Je suis plein,” literally, “I am full.” But what she was really announcing to her future in-laws was, “I’m pregnant!” And it’s even a vulgar way to say it (it’s used to talk about pregnant animals)! The future in-laws thought it was so funny they let her “get away with it” for over a year before she got corrected.
So while “Je suis plein,” to mean you’re full is perfectly acceptable to French Canadians, learn to say ” J’ai trop mangé, ” or “Je suis rassasié,” in France instead.
Moral of the story? You can’t always rely on direct translations. But what are even trickier to navigate are false friends.
False friends are words or pairs of words in two languages, which look or sound similar, but have different meanings. To make it that much harder, some of these false friends have a partial overlap in meaning! AND there are a lot of them!
For the sake of brevity, we’ve dutifully hand-picked what we think could be the potentially most embarrassing false friends in French and Spanish with English.
1. Preservatives vs. Preservativ and El Preservador
While preservatives may be used by English speakers to preserve their food, in French and Spanish (and other European languages) it serves a, um, slightly different function. “Preservativ” (French) and “el preservador” (Spanish) means condom. Don’t bother asking if your food is preservative-free; it probably is.
2. Constipated vs. Constipado
If a Spanish-speaker tells you they have “constipado,” it’s not a blocked bowel they are suffering from, but the common cold.
3. Napkin vs. Napkin
In French, “un napkin” refers to a sanitary napkin. Be careful what you ask for! A French dinner napkin is “une serviette.”
4. Gang vs. Ganga
In Spanish, a “ganga” is actually a good thing: it’s a bargain. Although ganga may be use in Spanglish as a word for “gang,” the usual word is pandilla.
5. Douche vs. Douche
Don’t be offended if a French person tells you to take a douche. While douche in English refers to “a method of cleaning a body cavity” or is used as an insult, in French “une douche” is simply a shower–actually, maybe you should be offended if a someone tells you, you need a douche.
6. Embarrassed vs. Embarazda
Just tripped over your own two feet? Don’t tell your Spanish friends you’re “embarazada,” especially if you’re a guy. Embarazada means you’re “pregnant,” not embarrassed. Say you’re “avergonzado” instead.
7. Bra vs. Bras and Chemise vs. Chemise
The French are (stereotypically) famous for their lingerie, but don’t walk into a lingerie shop and ask for “un bra,” unless you want the arm off the mannequin for some reason. “Bras” is your arm in French, whereas, un soutien-gorge (literally, something holding up your throat), is what you’re looking for.
And if your French girlfriend just bought “une chemise d’occasion,” don’t get too excited, it’s just a second-hand shirt. Not a hot pink see-through thing from Victoria Secret.
8. Chair vs. La Chair
Don’t ask a French person for “la chair ” in which to rest your bottom. La chair is literally flesh, as in meat used for sausages. You don’t want to sit on that. Ask for “la chaise” instead.
9. Library vs. La Librarie
If you want to borrow a book do not go to la librarie, which is a bookshop. If you don’t want to get arrested, visit the la bibliothèque instead.
10. Formidable vs. Formidable
If someone tells you, you’re “formidable” in French, it doesn’t mean they think you’re fearsome. It just means they think you’re great or terrific; almost the opposite of the English word. So if world domination is your plan, the reputation you’re after is “l’opposition est redoutable/effrayante.”