Scribbler in Seville

False friends and other fine messes

spain, spanish, language, learnOne of the things that always astonishes – and depresses – me about long-term expats here in Spain is how many of them have a grasp of Spanish somewhere between weak and non-existent. This might be because they haven’t been here long, or only stay for short periods, or because they’re studying but are finding it a struggle. But there are plenty who just never bother, aren’t interested, because they live in an expat ghetto and only ever interact with other English people – at the pub, restaurant, cafe, social occasions. What’s the point of living in a country if you can’t interact with its natives?

I guess it’s a matter of personal taste, but that was never the expat experience I was after. While I can’t boast a huge army of Spanish bosom buddies with whom (on whom?) to practise, and thereby improve and expand, my linguistic skills, my Spanish is decent; my accent, however, is not. When I first arrived, I already had a reasonable level; however, that didn’t stop me from getting in a pickle, and making an arse of myself on regular occasions.

Here are some of the stupid mistakes I made early on in my nine years here in Seville, which I hope will serve to a) entertain, and b) inform. Some are similar words which are easily confused, while others are so-called “false friends” – misleading words which resemble those of another language – in this case, English – while having a different meaning. They hold out the hand of friendship to you, and then cruelly snatch it away, laughing at your pain and confusion.

For many years, I was confused by the idea of a control on the motorway – how can they control my car? Using some scary super-high-tech remote sensor? But no – it’s a check, as in speed/alcohol motorway check.

As many women will have found out to their cost, embarazada does not mean doing something a bit silly which makes you blush; it means up the duff.

I also found it illogical (captain) and deeply muddling that subir means to go up, when sub is down – submarine, submerge, subnormal

One that I still haven’t got my head round is hemeroteca , which means archive – I cannot quite accept that it is not in any way connected to “homoerotic”. But maybe that says more about me.

It’s also muddling that esperar means hope, wait and expect – that’s a fairly broad net to be spreading. “I´m hoping to see you,”, “I’m waiting to see you”, and “I’m expecting to see you” – think of the room for misunderstanding.

I used to regularly order “un vaso de agua de grifa” – “a glass of spliff water”, while my now-husband died quietly of embarrassment. Grifa=jazz cigarette, grifo=tap.

As someone who writes about hotels, I’m incapable of walking (or driving, come to that) past an interesting-looking one without stopping, going inside for a nose around, and asking for a brochure. The look on the receptionist’s face (especially if it was a man) used to be a picture, as I merrily asked, “Me das un follete?” “Can I have a fuck?” Other half wasn’t too thrilled with that one, either. Follete=fuck, folleton = leaflet.

I have to admit that this isn’t mine, but it’s too good to pass up. A fellow Sevillana expat was visiting a family in Ecuador, and they were deciding which of their chickens to kill for dinner. As they chased the unfortunate bird to prepare it for the pot, my friend lamented “pobrecito polla”. She was confused as to why the family were helpless with mirth. Polla=male sex organ, pollo=chicken.

What confusions and embarrassments have you suffered while learning another language? Especially, though not only, Spanish?

85 thoughts on “False friends and other fine messes

  1. Matthew Hirtes

    My nephews and sons were helping me to tidy up our English-language academy. I swear to this day that I asked them to start with the cushions (cojínes). However, they (boys being boys) heard testicles (cojones).

  2. Tom Gething

    Once years ago I was on a Mexican train with a sleeper car,heading for Guadalajara. My Spanish was pretty rusty and I asked the porter why there were no rabanos on the bed. The porter looked at me like he would any other crazy American tourist. Of course, I meant sabanas.

  3. Josh

    I’ve got so many! Though few better than one made by a Turkish student I met last year at a birthday meal in a Mexican restaurant. The poor lad couldn’t speak much English or Spanish, and when prompted by the waiter, accidentally ordered a plate of chicken vaginas. He was suitably embarazada after that corker

  4. Susan Nadathur (@SusanNadathur)

    When I lived in Seville, a “bicho” was an insect. When I moved to the island of Puerto Rico, my new home, I opened wide plenty of eyes when I said something like “Mata el bicho.” In PR, That meant “kill the male-body-part. Why so many words for that special something only men have?

  5. Naomi Jane

    A friend of mine once asked for a coño (c***) of ice cream, and another sat down with her boyfriend’s family and told them how much ‘me encanta la polla’ (I love cock)… and I used to say ‘quiero pajar’ when I wanted to pay!

  6. Molly Sears-Piccavey

    So many of these have got me over the years. One of my own favourites is the mix up between Preservatives in processed food (conservantes in Spanish) and the word I believed to be correct: Preservativos (means Condoms in Spanish)
    I made this error repeatedly and have many red faced moments. I love healthy natural food and would ask for food that didnt contain any condoms in it. Doh! it took a while for me to learn to ask for ´platos sin conservantes´

  7. Belinda Beckett

    I was so mindful of putting my foot in it by using the wrong word, I went one step too far when I went into my local sweet shop to ask for some chocolate It’s perfectly ok to say – ‘chocolate’ in Spanish – but then I remembered it was also slang for hashish so I added ‘para comer’ (chocolate for eating). Then she DID give me a funny look!

  8. the artichoke adventures

    Some good ones there Fiona. I got a simple one but it was embarrassing at the time. When I first came to Spain in 1982 I’d been here a couple of weeks when I walked into a bar somewhere in Murcia and as foreigners were pretty scarce then in inland areas a kind of hush fell over the six or seven men crowded at the bar.And they all turned to look me up and down. Thinking myself pretty cool for knowing that you asked for “tobaco” and not cigarettes when ordering fags,I asked for “tobaco”.””¿Tienes tabaco?”The waiter said wait a moment I’ll ask the boss. And I thought “Bit weird having to ask the boss”. And whilst he was in the kitchen asking the boss I spied the cigarrettes stacked behind the bar.He was gone maybe two minutes.When he came back he said,”Sorry the boss says no”. “Uh??What are those then?” I said pointng at the cigarrettes. “Ooooh!! I thought you meant TRABAJO(work)!!” Needless to say everyone laughed out loud in the bar. I laughed but with a very red face. My pronounciation must have been awful(well it still is not so hot!!)

  9. azahar

    I had “polla a la plancha” on one of my food translation pages for almost a year before I noticed the typo! I hope my clients didn’t end up ordering it…

    1. Angelique

      The same things like with esperar I have with Buscar. It means looking for, when you don’t know where it is, but you can also buscar your children from school (pick up).
      Of course we all know mañana. This does not mean tomorrow. It means later, like tommorow, or the day after or next week or next month.

  10. Martin

    if your like pasta then watch out if looking for penne in a Spanish supermarket. here thy are called plumas. penne means penis.
    my partner has been caught out referring to me as her pajaro which means bird – what she meant to say was pareja which means partner.
    at the vet we have told the vet that our cat has influencia. she was very impressed to hear that our cat had influence. she was also a bit worried when we asked for something to treat the cats gusantes not gusanos, peas not worms.

  11. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas

    At a military wedding, I told everyone at the table my mother was “obsessionada con el caballo,” referring to her four-legged creature. Everyone thought I meant my mother was addicted to heroin, save my boyfriend. He practically fell out of his chair laughing!

  12. toptapas

    Still laughing here after reading that post…Stan asked the neighbour if he put condoms in his wine – preservativos . -We once thought the butcher sold Mule – her pronunciation of Musclos is Mooolow, that’s the Alpujarras for you. I spent 5 years telling everyone I was hot stuff – estoy caliente! – rather than hot under the collar, and now have an army of toothless would be suitors. But, to make an arse of oneself is always better than making an isolated expat island of oneself, no?!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      I SO agree with you about making an arse of youself – something I’m pretty used to by now, comes with the territory – and people here love that you make an effort, and can laugh about it too. I think the caliente one has caught many of us out at some point.

  13. Joanna Styles

    Very good these and I’ve made many of them… Another is “constipado” – I went into a chemists in Granada and asked for some medicine because I had a cold. The assistant asked me if I was “constipada” to which I insistently replied that I wasn’t. I ended up with no medicine. My Argentinian friends tell me that in South America constipado means, as English speakers would expect, constipated so they’ve had trouble with that one too. Thanks for a great article!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Thanks, Joanna – Latin American Spanish is often more Anglicised, due to proximity to/influence from the USA. In Ecuador, where I used to live, a computer is a computadora. When I used that word in Seville, needless to say noone had a clue what I was on about, until I realised they use ordenador here.

  14. deborah

    I once asked a group of friends to all come and sit in the corner of a bar together but got my sentarse mixed up with sentirse – mortified

  15. Pingback: Hemeroteca — No, it doesn’t mean homoerotica. | funlifequotes

  16. Mira

    First time I was there I learned constipada and other false friends, too. Of course, I still have a lot to learn. Loved your hemeroteca example and “polla a la plancha” had me in stitches 🙂

  17. Angelique

    I’m Dutch, my English is reasonable, but…
    I used to work for an international company in Holland. We worked on a KAIZEN project and had to go to a hardware store. I wanted to ask my English male colleague whether we had to buy some more bags. The Dutch word for bag is “zak”. An English word sack exists. I asked him: do we need some more sacks? But with my Dutch pronounciation I asked him: Do we need some more sex? He answered: I thought you’d never ask….

      1. Angelique

        Yes, this really happened. And unfortunately there were some friends in this hardware store too. Who turned their head around the alley and said: “What! You never asked us that question!”
        But that was it. No juicy follow up. Sorry.

  18. Jessica of HolaYessica

    Hahaha these are hilarious! The ‘follete’ one is funny, I can definitely see how that one would happen.

    For a while, I started mixing up ‘cojones’ and ‘cojines’ like Matthew said above – that was pretty embarrassing. And it took me ages to remember which one was ‘cuchara’ and which one was ‘cuchillo’ (the trick that helped: the ‘ll’ looks like two knives!).

  19. Mad Dog

    I’ve got a friend who’s been in Barcelona for 5 years and can barely speak a word of Spanish, let alone Catalan. These days the Catalans speak such good English that he’ll probably never learn! It wasn’t like that 20 years ago – then it was learn Spanish, or better, Catalan or don’t get any shopping, drinks, food, etc.

      1. Mad Dog

        He’s tried lessons a few times, but he’s slightly deaf and says he can’t understand what people are saying…
        The Catalans didn’t have a gift for English 20 years ago – the change is quite remarkable, but it doesn’t help a foreigner learn their language 😉

      2. chii91

        No, sorry. Catalans definitely AREN’T good at english. I’ve been living in Spain for the last 10 years and their english is just the same as in the rest of Spain or even worst.

  20. Mo

    Adorable post, made me laugh out loud. I´ve made loads of these mistakes too but had never heard of follete – so am now going to be doubly carefull at the tourist office…. unless there´s some really cute guy there ….

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  22. Kate Dengra

    Yes I have made many mistakes! When I lived in France I described a ‘jacket potato’ as a ‘potato in a dressing gown’. I have more mistakes in spanish though – I make and sell jams etc and I put ‘sin preservativos’ on the label (without condoms). I got ‘lenguaje’ (language) and ‘lengua’ (tongue) muddled up another time and actually said – ‘when you have got hands you dont need a tongue’ – I was trying to explain you can get your point across with lots of hand signing! but this was to my sisters new boyfriend and neither of them spoke each others language…….unfortunately he interpretted what I was saying as something rude!
    My Mum was in the butchers and told them ‘ i have a big leg’ when she actually wanted to know if they had a big leg (pointing at the lamb legs)…….and neither of us like ordering ‘pollo’ as we are convinced we will get it wrong one day!

    And now I have a little ‘Spanglish’ boy we are having similar problems – he calls the computer a ‘puter’ and the other day when my Spanish sister-in-law was round he said ‘mama mi puter’…..wanting to play on the computer (puta is a bitch! in spanish).

    Great blog post by the way – really made me chuckle

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Glad you enjoyed it, Kate. Your tongue comment is hilarious, as is the puta/’puter one! Condoms always get us into pickles – I had a similar one in France – in a chemist, I asked for protection, wanting condoms (bf was too embarrassed to ask himself, what a wimp), and they brought sanitary towels! I fled rather than digging myself in deeper.

  23. Gayle Mackie

    Meatballs and Lawyers used to confused a friend of mine (albondigas and abogados). I made a terrible faux pas with seafood (mariscos) and homosexual gentlemen (maricones) (saying in front of about 10 Spanish friends that I looooooved to EAT the latter!) OMG! 100s more come to mind too. Nice post. Brightened up a gloomy, wet Saturday.

  24. Amelia

    My dear Fiona, the same happens in English, for as, Spanish people. In London, I asked to the waiter in a fab restaurant: May I have a clean kidnap, please? And I use to write persil when I mean parsley, and thats awful when I´am writing Spanish cooking recipes !!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      I think persil is a wonderfully unique and original mistake, Amelia. And as for the clean kidnap/napkin one, that is just hilarious – no guns, no violence, just take me cleanly please Mr Waiter!

  25. losingmylemons

    So funny! Classic cock-ups for me have been, “Estoy calor” and I have asked for “ternera lechuga” lettuce veal, instead of ternera lechal, and I constantly muddle up berros, puerros & burros… ‘Quiero sopa de burros, por favor!’

    I found your blog through Bibsey, it’s fab!!!

  26. Masha

    Love this entry as a Brit who has lived in Spain for many years. I remember my Spanish husband saying to an English friend of ours, just after we’d got married that I was a very good “cock” instead of a very good cook.

  27. Masha

    And here’s another one. My daughter (half english half Spanish but more fluent in Spanish) Susana was in england for a month when she was 14 and at an ice cream parlour asked for 2 “balls” of vanilla ice cream. The waiter politely answered do you mean 2 scoops? She learned the word scoop for life hahahaha

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  29. Robert Mykle

    Though I’ve been in Spain often and even have a daughter living in Linares I’m glad I found your post here and will check out your blog. I’m heading to Spain in April and plan to catch part of the Feria and hopefully a few corridas after. I have a matador friend who owns a bullfarm in Extremadura (near Trujilo).

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  31. Lara Elizabeth

    My boyfriend happily ordered ‘huevas’ from a tapas menu before I could warn him that I didn’t think he was going to get the sunny-side-ups he was hoping for…luckily he enjoyed his salty curls of fish roe 🙂

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  35. Anabel

    Hello Fiona,

    I am Spanish and I always make mistakes when I speak with the man I speak with to improve our English and Spanish respectively.
    I said to him… Norman, I am constipated as we say ” estoy constipado” for a cold and he made me go red, hahaha.
    It’s not a problem as he is one of my best friends now but he laughed at me when I said that word.
    The thing is that I took the revenge when he told me ” estoy caliente” as he wanted to say ” I’m hot” and we say that like ” Tengo calor”.

    Because of that, we are creating a page to show his learning process and his mistakes as we think that is very interesting for people who are trying to learn Spanish.

    False friends are crazy but very funny.

    Love your blog!


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