Learning a language? Don’t be a meatball – beware of “false friends” like these>


Have you heard of false friends when you are learning a different language?

Words that look or sound familiar and similar to words in your own language.

But be careful – these false friends DO NOT mean the same as the words you think they are.

Here are real-life examples a lawyer from the US shared with me!

A Spanish-speaking friend of his kept telling everybody she was CONSTIPATED.

Yeah, that’s usually something you keep to yourself!

She actually meant she was feeling CONGESTED in the head and the Spanish word for congested is CONSTIPADO.

Hence, you can understand her thinking the similar word in English was CONSTIPATED – and her telling everyone how CONSTIPATED she was!

English speakers often joke about people who are learning English using the wrong words.

It’s often the subject of humour – as in the jokes about Spanish-speaking Gloria from Modern Family.

Sometimes the confusion results from speakers trying to repeat expressions they have heard and getting it close but wrong.

Other times the confusion is due to the false friends!

But, false friends can embarrass English speakers too who are trying to speak in other languages.

The same lawyer above shared how he was trying to explain in Spanish that he was a lawyer:  ABOGADO

Instead, he used a similar word he was familIar with and proudly told everyone that he was an ALBONDIGA – which is a kind of MEATBALL!

(In English, meatball can be another expression for a fool or stupid person. Meatball has lots of other slang meanings too – most of them unflattering.)


Then there’s the infamous story about a pen company  launching a pen in Mexico and trying to say in Spanish that the  pen would not EMBARRASS you with ink stains.

ink stain

They used the Spanish word that looks likes EMBARRASS –  EMBARAZAR –    yet in Spanish that means to MAKE PREGNANT.

You can imagine the Spanish-speaking readers laughing when they read those words!

The lesson – beware of False friends – or else you can look like a big  meatball!

Here’s a link to more false friends and more about that Pen story!


TB training group

From my experience, false friends cause problems because you can think you are smart because you’ve worked out by your logic what a word means.

I remember when I was working in Austria and trying to operate equipment with instructions written in German. I thought I was so clever!

I thought I was smart in using my logic that the AUF switch MUST mean OFF because it sounded like OFF (with a German accent!)

Plus Auf Weidersehen –  because it means GOODBYE surely means “I’m off!”

As you may know – and as I well know now – AUF means ON!

I’m sure there are hundred of stories like this about word confusion. Please feel free to share in the comments if YOU have a story or example!

I often help executives who are from different language backgrounds.

If the executives have an important presentation, I get them to practice their presentation out loud to catch any mistakes. Part of the process is being aware of false friends. It’s better to look like a meatball in a practice rather in the actual presentation.



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I blog about fun pop culture stuff as well as more serious  business communication tips.




tony biancotti


Linked In – under Tony Biancotti


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