‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ For enemies, one could also read ‘false friends’ – those mischievous foreign words that teasingly resemble vocabulary from one’s native language, when in fact they have no relation.
Shortly after joining Real Madrid, David Beckham fell foul of a humorous false friend when he attempted to give an interview, in faltering Spanish. He told journalists that his wife was “embarazada”, not realising that in Spanish the word means “pregnant” and is not linked to the English word “embarrassed”. By making this simple mistake, Beckham inadvertently created a news sensation, with newspapers speculating about a Beckham baby. He had to hold another press conference to assure the media that Victoria was not pregnant.
Another mistake that can arise is when using the word “constipated”. In Spanish, ‘constipado’ refers to the common cold: when one feels ill. In England, being “constipated” means an inability to void one’s bowels (to go to the toilet properly). You can imagine the mortification that might ensue from such misuse of the word!
A more serious error could occur when using the word ‘molest’. In English, ‘molest’ is generally used with sexual connotations, in the sense of physically inappropriate behaviour. In Spanish, ´molestar’ simply means to bother, denuded of any nefarious sexual overtones. Misuse of the word ‘molest’ by a Spanish speaker could result in grave offence being taken by the English speaker.
So whilst experimentation and appropriation of new English vocabulary should always be encouraged, be careful when using a new or unfamiliar foreign word – make sure you know exactly what it means. Try not to assume that it will always mean the same thing in English as it does in your own language. Or, like the Beckhams, you may end up feeling “embarazada”…
Teasingly (adverb) – to arouse hope or desire without satisfying
Fall foul (phrasal verb) – to break a rule without intending to
Mortification (noun) – a feeling of shame or humiliation
Ensue (verb) – to occur as a result
Nefarious (adjective) – extremely wicked, sinful
Overtone (noun) – an additional meaning or nuance
Appropriation (noun) – the act of taking for one’s own use