Spanish Words to Avoid Misusing on Your Business Trip to Spain

burro_2594503When a language is as widespread as Spanish it undergoes several changes as it is adapted from culture to culture. Just as the meaning of “pants” went from undergarments to trousers when Americans started adapting English, words you may have learned from Latin American Spanish speakers may have other meanings in Spain. Not to mention the existence of “false friends”—words that exist in Spanish and sound quite like English words but don’t translate the same. And if you’re travelling there on business you want to give the best impression, even if your Spanish is less than fluent.



This is not a “false friend”—yes, it means “stupid” just like it sounds. The difference? While in English we often use this word in a lighthearted manner, it is taken much more serious in Spanish. It can be quite insulting and degrading if you call someone this and very unprofessional if you use it in reference to yourself.


Chances are, there will be moment where you feel embarrassed. That’s kind of par-for-the-course in international travel. However, you’re going to be even more embarrassed if you use this false cognate to try and express your embarrassment… especially if you’re a male. “Embarazada” means “pregnant.” Use “avergonzado” when your face turns red.


This is another “false friend,” and one that could be very important if you’re visiting on business.  “Compromiso” means an obligation or commitment… not a compromise where two or more parties give up separate wants to reach a happy conclusion. “Transigencia” is a closer to the English understanding of the word “compromise.”

En absoluto

When learning Spanish one of the most difficult things to grasp are the various terms used to negate that don’t sound negative at all.  “En absoluto” means “absolutely not.” This is why it’s so important to try and think in Spanish instead of translating from English in your head. If you absolutely must, try “totalmente,” a cognate of “totally.”


This one is a bit more personal. Growing up in Texas, I learned a lot of “Spanglish,” the hybrid of Mexican Spanish and American English used in the Southwest States. While teaching English second language to kids, I could ask them “¿Me puedes grabar el lápiz?” and I’d have a pencil in my hand in no time. However, leaving the Spanglish speaking world I found out “grabar” actually means “to record.” False friend, indeed.


This literally means “tail” in Spanish. Even though you’ll see the word on the bottles of Coke and Pepsi, it isn’t used when ordering. Ask for a “Coca” or “Coca lite” and if it’s a Pepsi establishment they’ll ask you if Pepsi is okay and the rest is up to you. If you want to really flex your Spanish ask for a gaseosa, the term for “soft drink,” then state your marca y tipo of choice.

Un celular

Here’s one specific to Spain. “Celular” means cellular. This is true. But you will get a couple confused looks if you attempt to use it to describe your phone. In Spain it is much more common to use “móvil.” Helpful hint: in Spanish, the sounds for the letters “b” and “v” are pretty much indistinguishable.


First off, this can be a false friend. The Spanish word for ball is “bola” and you’ll often hear people use “-ito” or “-ita” to emphasize that something is smaller than normal. A “bollito” is not a small ball. In most Spanish speaking countries a “bollito” is a small, sweet bun or cookie… innocent enough. But in Spain it is a very rude word used for lesbians. Do not use.


This could generally be assumed as the noun taken from the Spanish verb cantar—“to sing.” The correct noun for “singing” or “song” is “canto.” “Cante” is slang in Spain for body odor. So think carefully before attempting to compliment an associate’s singing.


Yes, you want to be polite and tell your host how thankful you are… but avoid using this “false friend” in Spain as it has strong religious sentiments. “Hostia” is literally the white communion wafer used to represent the body of Christ. In Spain if used outside of that very specific context, it is a VERY offensive swear word, especially with older and religious people. It is considered blasphemous and blasphemy in Spain is worse than using straight cursing. You’d be better off calling your host an “idiota.” Just kidding, DON’T DO THAT.

Remember: everyone makes mistakes when learning a new language. They’re actually the best teaching tools. These are just a few helpful tips. If you’re unsure what step to take next, try Language Trainer’s Spanish Level Test to see where you are in your Spanish learning journey or check out the various courses we offer in Australia and New Zealand.  Still lost? Contact us with your questions and we’ll help point you in the right direction.