Is there an etymological origin that can be called the main one that has created the list of "false friends" between Spanish and English?

I'm constantly stumbling upon a new "false friend" when reading or studying English.

Some examples (English / Spanish):

  • Actual / Actual
  • Redact / Redactar
  • Comprehensive / Comprensivo
  • Realize / Realizar

My personal opinion is that the many influences that both English (Celtic, Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Germans, Normans among others) and Spanish (Pre-Romans, Romans, Arabic, Basques, American indigenous, among others) have had along their existence has produced such confusing similarities, but I'm not quite sure.

  • 2
    I'm not sure, what are you asking for exactly?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 20:26
  • I'm asking if there is some known source (if any) for the false-friends between these languages. Well, if there is more than one main source, they are also welcomed. Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 20:34

3 Answers 3


Most "false friends" are, in fact, real cognates that have drifted. It is only the specific and local variations in language usage that have driven the most common usages apart. Because of the particular and specific nature of the subtle variations that add up over time, there can be no general rule.

The specific usages you quote are actually not false friends at all but close synonyms or exact matches that happen to have grown alternate usages. Some of those alternative usages have become numerically dominant over time, but the original meaning is mostly still valid.

  • Actual / Actual

Both come from Latin ago, agere, egi, actum -- to act or do. Coming from the Latin past periphrastic participle, they refer to the present outcome of the verb, literally having been acted or done. English emphasizes the truth of the action and Spanish the present time of the outcome but they meant the same thing once.

  • Redact / Redactar

These both mean composition in writing but in English it almost always refers to a text made by combining or censoring an old text. In Spanish it means the same but is much more likely to refer to an original work.

  • Comprehensive / Comprensivo

To comprehend or comprender is to take in something completely. In English and in Spanish that can refer to complete coverage in understanding or complete coverage in a more spatial and logical sense. English emphasizes the second and Spanish the first.

  • Realize / Realizar

These mean exactly the same thing -- to make real. English has added a sense of realizing a complete model in the mind that has led to implying a sudden understanding and that usage has become dominant recently. The English version still means all the things the Spanish does and is frequently used that way.



Etymological histories of words passing from language to language and changing along the way are many and varied. False friends are just the end product of this convoluted process.

The closest you could get to anything like common reasons is sets of words derived from the same common prefixes or suffixes. And I don't know if such is common at all. I can't think of any examples off the top of my head at least.


I don't know for sure, and I guess every case is different.

I notice that Comprehensive and comprensivo have the same root [1].

Dictionary.com says about Comprehensive [2]:


1605–15; < Late Latin comprehēnsīvus. See comprehension, -ive

About comprensivo, La Real Academia Española (RAE) says [3]:

comprensivo, va.

(De comprehensivo).

And when one search comprehensivo [4]:

comprehensivo, va.

(Del lat. comprehensīvus).

In fact, in my mind, their meaning are suspiciously related.

About this, according to The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2008, as cited by Wordreference.com, the third definition of Comprehensive is [5]:


    1 including or dealing with all or nearly all aspects of something.

        ■ of large content or scope. [...]

    3 archaic relating to understanding.

While the first meaning of comprensivo (according to the RAE) is [6]:

  1. adj. Que tiene facultad o capacidad de comprender (‖ entender).

Even further, this makes sense to me since, if I remember correctly, the lating word comprehēnsīvus means something like

to grasp, seize, arrest

To grasp... either an idea, a feeling for another human being, or a situation.


[ 1 ] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_%28philology%29

[ 2 ] dictionary.reference.com/browse/comprehensive

[ 3 ] rae.es/comprensivo

[ 4 ] rae.es/comprehensivo

[ 5 ] www.wordreference.com/definition/Comprehensive

[ 6 ] rae.es/comprensivo

PS. Sorry for the links' format, but I can't post more than 2 links because I need more reputation. :)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.