When 1 Word in English = 3+ in Spanish

When you first start learning a language, it’s all fun and games! Hey, today I learned 20 new words! And they’re words I’ll use more than once a month! Now, though, I learn words like surco and resarcir and resquebrajar. Those words, believe it or not, don’t come out of my mouth that often.

Sometimes I find there are two words in English for one word in Spanish. For example, dove and pigeon. Are those two birds really different? (Wikipedia says not really.) But a lot of times there’s one word in English for a few in Spanish. This is what trips me up. Let’s talk examples.

Towel

Definition: a piece of thick absorbent cloth or paper used for drying oneself or wiping things dry.

But in Spanish:ToallaToalla

PañoPaño

Trapo de CocinaTrapo (de cocina)

Rag

Definition: a piece of old cloth, esp. one torn from a larger piece, used typically for cleaning things.

But in Spanish:

TrapoTrapo

BayetaBayeta

Bowl

Definition: a round, deep dish or basin used for food or liquid.

But in Spanish:

BolBol

Tazón Tazón

Cuenco

Cuenco

Plato Hondo

Plato hondo

Scarf

Definition: a length or square of fabric worn around the neck or head.

But in Spanish:

Bufanda

Bufanda

Pañuelo

Pañuelo?
Foulard/Fular?
Pashmina?

To Be

This is the biggest. To be or not to be? ¿Ser o no ser? ¿Estar o no estar? I’ve finally mastered this, but sometimes I still wonder why a person cannot ser loco, he must estar loco.

Okay, what about you? Tell me some other examples of this phenomenon, either from Spanish to English or vice versa.

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13 comments

  1. Ahh, the pañuelo/bufanda one still trips me up! I usually just try to call it a bufanda in the winter and a pañuelo the rest of the time.

    In Leon there was an extra word for rag–“gamuza.” Talk about a lot of words for one object!

  2. Oh, Cass, you could totally open up a can of worms here! Yesterday at Fera, Hayley ordered a caña and they looked at her like she was mad. I had to reminder her that they´re known as cervecitas, tubos, frescas or birras here., but then of course you get the differences with the sizes, glasses, etc…

  3. FYI I believe “cuenco” refers specifically to an earthenware or ceramic (porcelain, etc.) bowl, so bowls made of any other material would be excluded, such as those stainless steel bowls pictured. The generic “el bol” would include all of those.

    I agree, though, I’ve noticed this about Spanish (multiple words for one English word) and it’s very confusing and aggravating, made even worse when you have different words for the same thing that vary by dialect/region (e.g. “carro” vs. “coche”, “bolígrafo” vs. “pluma” vs. “lapicero”, etc.).

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  4. My favorite was when I found out the Spanish do not have a word for “escalator!” I remember talking to a Spanish friend about the Madrid metro and I mentioned there are lots of escalators and stairs. He didn’t seem to understand when I asked him what the word for escalator was. He kept insisting they just used the word “escalera” which confused me because I was thinking in my head how the heck do they differentiate between stairs and an escalator in a conversation? So I started calling the escalator “la escalera automatica” in that conversation.

  5. English is similar lol. But what’s especially confusing about Spanish is that it’s spoken in so many countries, there are so many dialects to take into consideration.

    When I came back to Chicago after living in Spain for a while I went to a Spanish conversation meetup. Some Americans said words I felt positive were wrong, but in theory they could be right somewhere :-p

  6. Hi, in Spanish you can say “eres un loco” when someone does crazy things, for example, eres un loco al volante, if someone usually drives dangerously.

  7. I used to become frustrated by the use of “esperar” for both “hope” and “expect,” particularly when having conversations with my then-boyfriend about our future. Hope and expect are very different concepts but it is difficult to convey that in Spanish.

  8. I read this post of yours just after you commented on my post on hitting a language plateau, and now my eyes are crossed & my head is scrambled all over again. Haha. It’s funny that we Spanish learners get tripped up by these vocab distinctions b/c English actually has so much more vocab. Regardless, when I can’t remember Spanish vocab, I talk in overly verbose and circuitous ways … “that thing that you use to clean the table” and “the big bowl we use for parties.” :)

  9. you hit all the big examples, for me — i hate the bowl thing, especially. what do you mean, a deep plate? it’s a bowl! but then i remember things like how cumplir can be to turn, to fulfill, to obey, to carry out, to become, i could continue… and i feel better about not having to learn english :)

  10. a “gamuza” is something you put on your hands to wash a car, at least here in my hometown in Murcia.

    as for “ser loco” o “estar loco”…well the first one makes no sense and sounds illiterate and dumb. I’ve never heard “eres un loco al volante”…..maybe it relates to South America and Mexico. In Spain what you only hear is “eres un peligro al volante” (you are a danger while driving)

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