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False Friends

Where are my true cognates, mate?

As a language learner and teacher, I am endlessly fascinated by the way words that look the same do not mean the same thing. These, when encountered outside of class, can be hilarious. When I lived in Madrid, I was approached by a man who wanted to open a real American diner, and went so far as to buy a vintage chrome diner car, manufactured in Pennsylvania by the J.G. Brill Company, and then had it shipped to Spain by sea. He wanted everything else to come from the States, too. I had cooked at Betty’s Diner in Berkeley and several other Californian diner-type restaurants, so I was their primo candidate for the project. I designed the menu, located the kitchen tools and equipment for him, and met with the purveyors. I should mention that my Spanish at that time was intermediate level at best.

On a tour of the facilities at Manuel Fernández Fernández SA, we were in a vast refrigerated chamber where a manager explained each of the imported products they had on offer. He held up a blister pack of bratwurst and said, “All natural, no chemical additives whatsoever!” And I said, “¡Sin preservativos!” This could have been a very embarrassing moment for me, but no one laughed, and the gracious manager corrected me, “Exacto, sin conservantes.” We went on to the chicken department. When I got home, I got out my bilingual dictionary and discovered that ‘preservativo’ in Spanish means condom.


There are many of these false cognates or false friends in Spanish. As you learn, you are always on the lookout for them. ‘Carpeta’ means folder, ‘constipado’ means you’ve come down with a cold. The whole concept of a false friend grows—something that looks the same and is not, someone who can speak your language faultlessly, a Dutch person, or a Brit, who you will still not understand 100%. The language is the same, but the meanings are tied to culture, and these are not the same. Misunderstandings ensue.

The word ‘friend’ itself has gone through semantic contortions since social media. Many people have a bevvy of online friends through platforms like XTwitter or Facebook. Everyday they go online and interact with people they “like”. We label them followers, as if we all had Christ-like powers of persuasion and messages of profound value. Followers can turn into stalkers or trolls, or we can convert them into real-world friends if this is geographically possible. Some push that envelope by getting on planes, but social media has given us a whole new category of friendship. It’s now possible to have long and happy relationships with people online, who we probably couldn’t interact with in the real world for more than half an hour. Yet online, they might support you in ways that are critical to your survival in this fractured society we are all trying to cope with. Whether it’s an online only, or face-to-face friendship, the feelings of personal regard and preference are there. The secret ingredient for success is still time.

With the online relationship, we might ask ourselves if they are real friends. You might say that if you have something in common with them, why not? The only thing is, we can eliminate the friend/follower with a click of the mouse. Block them, and they cease to exist. Sublimated murder! Should it be so facile when we all know that blocking can and frequently does lead to genuine psychological harm? Should we indulge in the impulse to be so intolerant online that we would block or mute someone because simply scrolling past their posts was somehow not enough? According to some, the answer is a resounding yes. Would this fly in the real world? Probably not. I would be very poor, for example, if I stopped providing service to clients based on whether I like their personalities or not. In a group of real world friends, you’d be tagged as an intolerant jerk, or rejected for the same reason. (unless that’s your ilk.) Lots of lonely people out there will say better alone than badly accompanied. So, better online, eh? Safer.

Not really.

What hope does any friendship have, real world or online, if we fence ourselves off from others? Where is the emotional intelligence in this?

En ninguna parte.


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