Common False Cognates: English vs. French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese

Please note: Because my knowledge of French and Italian is considerably more substantial than my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, this list is more geared toward false cognates in the former two languages. That said, I have attempted to focus on words that share meanings across multiple Latin-derived languages but that differ from similar-looking English words. If you would like to suggest an addition or edit, please feel free to send a message.

You can also download this list as a PDF.


Ability – Skill; used much more frequently than capacity, which is typically used to refer to size, e.g., The arena has the capacity to fit 50,000 spectators.


Accident – Chance occurrence, almost always negative, can range from very minor (e.g.,The child spilled juice on the carpet by accident) to very serious (e.g., There was a major car accident).


Achieve – Succeed in completing a goal; has a very positive connotation, , e.g., He finally achieved his goal of climbing Mt. Everest.


Actually – In reality, NOT at this time.

Note to French speakers: although actually is the most accurate translation of en fait, it is not used as a sort of verbal tic to begin sentences, the way it is in French. Its use in everyday conversation is much closer to that of en realité. Although actually can be placed at the beginning of a sentence for emphasis, it is typically placed between the subject and the verb (like other adverbs), e.g., Are you looking for Robert?  Sorry, he actually left a few minutes ago.


Agony – Intense, excruciating pain; can be experienced by someone who is severely ill or injured but who is expected to recover.


Alumnus/-a, pl. Alumni/-ae – Former student. A person who is currently studying at an institution is a pupil (more common in the UK to refer to children and teenagers in primary/secondary-school) or a student.


Amateur – A person who practices an activity for enjoyment rather than money, but often at a relatively high level. Can have a slightly negative connotation, i.e., that someone isn’t talented enough to pursue an activity professionally.


Ancient – Typically used to describe things that are more than 1500 years old. Can also be translated as former (used mostly for people) or old (people and things) when it refers to what one used to have, e.g., my former/old professormy old car. Fr. ancien élève = alumnus/alumna or graduate, e.g., C’est un ancien élève d’Oxford  = He’s an Oxford grad(uate).


Animate (vs. Fr., animer) – One animates a cartoon (makes the figures move); one moderates a conference or a panel.


Anniversary – Date marking the occurrence of an important event, e.g., a wedding anniversary; the date of a person’s birth is their birthday.


Annoy – Irritate, mildly anger. Something uninteresting is boring.


Argument – Strong disagreement or debate; has a distinctly negative connotation. The storyline of a novel or film is the plot


Assist – Help or aid someone (note that this verb takes a direct object in English; one assists someone, not to someone). The French assister à is translated as to attend or be present at, or informally to go to (e.g., I went to my friend Catherine’s party last night).


Assume – Draw a conclusion, e.g., I assumed she was coming to the party, but I haven’t seen her all night. One acceptstakes on, or shoulders a responsibility.


Attend (vs. Fr., attendre) – Be present at. When a person has not yet arrived, you wait for them.


Available – If someone is free to meet for lunch, they are available. There is no direct equivalent of the French disponible or the Italian disponibile.


Bless (vs. Fr., blesser) – Offer a benediction. If you have experienced bodily harm, you have injured or hurt yourself.


Camera – Device used to take photographs. An enclosed space in a house is a room.


Character – A person in a play or novel. This word can be used to describe a (real) person’s characteristics or moral qualities, but personality is more often used.


Classic/Classical – Something that is classic is traditional; something classical comes from Greek/Roman antiquity, or from a culture’s highest (historical) point of civilization.


College – In the United States, a college is a four-year university equivalent that grants bachelor’s degrees only; it can also refer to the division of a large university responsible for undergraduate education (e.g., Harvard College is the undergraduate division of Harvard University). In the UK, it is typically used in the context of sixth-form colleges that students attend starting at around age 16, to prepare for A-level examinations. It is also used for some certain secondary schools, e.g., Eton College, as well as for technical/vocational schools.


Compromise (vs. Port., compromisso) – Agreement reached by disputing parties in which each makes concessions in return for obtaining things that they want. A scheduled meeting is an appointment.


Convenient – easy to access or use, e.g. Bicycles have become a very convenient travel option in many cities.


Constipated (vs. Sp., constipado) – Bowel blockage. A mild respiratory infection is a cold.


Control – Have power over, dominate. One checks to make certain of something, or to ensure that a situation is under control, e.g., We should check on the kids to make sure they’re okay.


Costume – Particular or historical style of dress, worn by actors in a play or children on Halloween. A professional worker wears a suit.


Currently – Right now, at this moment, e.g., the current situation. One speaks a language fluently.


Deception – Falsification, presentation of misleading information. To feel bad as a result of a person’s unreliable behavior, or because of an event’s cancellation, is to be disappointed.


Demand – Insist very rudely that someone do something, e.g., The diner complained that his steak had been improperly cooked and demanded that the waiter bring him a new one. One asks a question.


Discussion – Conversation; entirely neutral connotation, with no implication of disagreement.


Disgust (vs. Sp. disgusto) Repulsion, revulsion. A mild dislike for something is a distaste.


Economic – Related to the economy; Economical – Inexpensive.


Editor – person who prepares a manuscript for publication. A company that acquires and distributes books is a publisher.


Educated/Education – Refers to formal schooling only, e.g., He’s very educated: he finished his doctorate last year.


Embarrassed (vs. Sp., embarazada) – A person who feels foolish is embarrassed; a woman who is expecting a baby is pregnant.


Eventually – At some undetermined point in the future, e.g., We’ll get a new sofa eventually… Maybe next year. An event that might occur is something that could possibly happen.


Experiment – Test to assess the validity of a scientific hypothesis. A person who has done a particular activity for a long time is experienced.


Fabric – Cloth.


Factory Large building where items such as cars as produced/assembled. Animals live on a farm.


Formation – Creation, assemblage, e.g., the formation of a new group or committee. Education is used for schooling, e.g., She received an excellent education at that school.


Frequent – In English, frequent generally acts as an adjective meaning very often, e.g., They are frequent diners at this restaurant. It is possible to use this word as a verb, e.g., They frequent this restaurant every time they’re in town, but this usage is less common. On the other hand, a student can only attend a school or university.


Grand – Majestic, dignified, impressive. The opposite of small is big or large.


Gross – Disgusting (very informal).


Gusto – Great enthusiasm. One talks about a food’s taste.


In fact – Note to Italian speakers that this is two words. This expression is typically reserved for strong contradictions and is used less often than it is in French or Italian. Actually is far more common. In addition, in fact is not used to confirm another person’s comment, as it is in Italian (e.g., “E proprio difficile questo lavoro”. “Infatti!”). This usage can be translated as exactly.


Journal – Publication containing scholarly articles. A daily publication reporting current events is a newspaper.


Large – General synonym for big.


Library – Institution from which people can borrow books; one purchases books at a bookstore (US) or a bookshop (UK).


Magazine – Publication issued every week or month, e.g., Vogue or The Economist. One purchases items at a store (more common in the US) or a shop (more common in the UK).


Medicine – Field of study related to the human body; a person who practices medicine can only be called a doctor.


Miserable – Extremely unhappy. Someone who is very poor is impoverished or destitute.


Money – If a person pays for an item that costs $2.50 with a $5 note, the bills and coins they receive back are called changeMoney is the general term for currency.


Morbid – gruesome or related to severe disease; the opposite of hard is soft.


Occasion (vs. Fr. d’occasion) – a specific time, e.g., They met on two occasions, or an important celebration/ceremony. Items previously owned by another person are used, e.g., used books, used clothing.


Plain (vs. Fr. plein) – Simple, not fancy. Plein de qqchs = full of something


Parents – Your mother and father are your parents. The other members of your family are your relatives. Your brothers and sisters can also be called siblings.


Polite – Having good manners.


Pose (vs. Fr. poser) – To present oneself falsely or insincerely; or to adopt a specific bodily posture, e.g., the children posed for the photographer. One can pose a question in English, but ask is more common. One puts down or sets down one’s things (posez vos affaires = put down your things).


Present (v. pree-ZENT)  Give a lecture or discuss a report publicly. One introduces a person to someone.


Pretend – Synonym for imagine — what young children do when they play together. The English equivalent of the Fr. prétendre is claimof the It. pretendere is insist or demand.


Preoccupy – Preoccupate does not exist. It can also be translated as bother (US, bah-ther, baw-ther; UK, baw-thuh), e.g., something’s bothering me.


Professor – Someone who possesses a doctorate and teaches at the university level; instructors of younger students (all ages) are teachers.


Publicity – Media attention, e.g., The celebrity received a lot of publicity for his most recent film role. A poster or video whose purpose is to induce consumers to purchase a product is an advertisement (US: adverTISEment, ad for short; UK: adVERtizment, advert for short).


Realise/Realize – Become aware of, e.g., When I arrived home, I realized that I didn’t have my keys. It is possible to use this verb in the sense of achieve a goal or bring a project to fruition, but that is not the standard usage.


Record (vs. Sp. recordar, It. ricordare) – To capture sounds or images for later playback. To retain information in one’s mind is to remember; to tell someone something they have forgotten is to remind them.


Responsible (adj. only) – Reliable, able to manage all aspects of a situation; although this word can be used to describe someone who has committed a crime (the responsible party), guilty is more frequently used in everyday conversation.


Robe (vs. It., roba) – Gown worn over one’s clothes; an informal term for things is stuff.


Romance – Love story. A long work of fiction is a novel.


Rope (vs. Sp. ropa) – Heavy cord. A person wears clothes or clothing.


Sane – A person who is psychologically normal is sane; a person who does not have any diseases is healthy


Regard (vs. Fr. régarder) – To consider, e.g., Zinédine Zidane is widely regarded as one of the best soccer/football players of all time. One watches television or a movie/film.


Rest (vs. Fr. rester) – To relax or sleep; repose is very formal/literary in English. One remains or stays at an event or in a place.


Savage – Uncivilized and dangerous; strongly negative connotation. Undomesticated plants and animals, and people who are unconventional or out of control, are wild (positive or negative connotation depending on the context).


Sensible – Practical, level-headed. A person who is strongly affected by pleasant and unpleasant events and shows emotion easily is sensitive.


Smoking – The act of inhaling on a cigarette or cigar. The most formal type of men’s suit is a tuxedo.


Society (vs. Fr., société) – A group of individuals belonging to community; also, a club. A workplace is a business or a company.


Specify (Fr., préciser) – Unlike many other common verbs, préciser does not have an exact English equivalent. It is translated as to specify or to be more precise, although these constructions (particularly the latter) can have a slightly more demanding connotation than the French. When requesting additional information, people often say something like, Could you please provide a bit more information/detail? 


Story (vs. History) – A story is the plot of a novel, film, or play; history refers to events that happened in the past.


Support – To hold up physically (e.g., The beams support the ceiling); to sustain a person emotionally (e.g., He supported me during a difficult time); to uphold or advocate for a cause/organization (e.g., I can’t believe they still support that law).