Maria was spending a semester in Washington with her husband. The newly married Spanish couple had decided that they could greatly improve their career prospects if they improved their English. They arrived in Washington and registered for language classes and settled happily in an apartment in the pleasant Foggy Bottom area.

One day Maria asked to speak to her teacher after class. She explained that she was embarrassed and she would not be able to attend classes any more because she was going to have a baby rather soon. Her teacher told her not to be embarrassed. She said that this was wonderful news, and that it was cause for celebration.

Maria left the conversation in a state of total confusion. What on earth did the teacher mean by telling her not to be embarrassed? Why was that any of her business? Her confusion quickly turned to irritation.

The misunderstanding turned out to be a case of what language teachers often call “false friends.” Most of the time, if a word in one language sounds like a word in your own language, it can really help you. For example, the Spanish word, revolución, looks, sounds, and means almost the same as the English word, revolution. That’s an example of a true friend! But there are some words that look and sound almost the same in two languages, but the meaning is completely different. When Maria told her teacher that she was embarrassed, she was thinking of the Spanish word, embarazada, which means pregnant. Her teacher probably should have known that and what Maria was really talking about. Embarazada is a good example of a false friend.

Click here to see a list of 50 Spanish-English false friends.

There are also false friends that cause us to use our native language incorrectly. Enormity is a good example. People naturally associate enormity with enormous and assume that it is a noun that can be used to describe the immense size of something. Correctly, the word should be used to describe extreme wickedness.

For example, it is correct to talk about the enormity of a crime. Merriam Webster’s dictionary provides the following synonyms: atrociousness, atrocity, depravity, and monstrosity. But you can’t talk about the enormity of the trees in the redwood forests of California. They’ve done nothing wrong!