Paronyms, Homophones And Other Mistakes In Spanish

As the saying goes, ‘Quien tiene boca, se equivoca’ (“Who has a mouth makes mistakes”). To err is human, but don’t worry — you can always learn from your mistakes.
friends sitting around a table laughing spanish homophones

Have you ever heard of any Spanish homophones? Or paronymous words? (Not to be confused with false friends!) We’ll clear up all your doubts around what many people find to be the most confusing words in Spanish.

When words are conflated, it’s known in Spanish as a lapsus. According to the dictionary, lapsus linguae literally means a “slip” or “mistake of the tongue.” It’s an involuntary blunder, a mistake caused by a spontaneous oversight. For example: tenemos un aborigen de trabajo (we have an aborigine of work) instead of vorágine de trabajo (maelstrom of work).

Perhaps not quite as striking, but just as entertaining, are the lapsus cálami, which are mistakes made in writing. This is where you have to be careful about paronymous words: Where they sound similar but are spelled differently, like prejuicio (prejudice) versus perjuicio (damages), as well as Spanish homophones, which sound the same but have a different meaning, like vasto (vast) versus basto (coarse).

Spanish Paronymous Words

Paronymous words are very similar in how they look or sound. Let’s look at a few examples:

1. Prever vs. preveer

Prever is the combination of the prefix pre- and the verb ver (to see). Based on that, the meaning is pretty clear: to foresee or predict. For example: Se prevé un invierno muy frío. (A very cold winter was predicted.) However, it’s not uncommon to see this verb with a third e, preveer, maybe because of its similarity with the verb proveer, which has the very different meaning “to supply.”

2. Prejuicio vs. perjuicio

Despite their similarity, what’s certain is that these two words have completely different meanings. Prejuicio is prejudice, or an opinion formed prematurely, usually negative, about something or someone. Perjuicio, however, is damage to assets (like daño), which you often hear together: Los demandó por daños y perjuicios. (They were sued for damages.)

3. Libido vs. lívido

If we’re talking about sexual desire, then it’s libido. This word is stressed on the second to last syllable [libído], but it’s common to find it with a stress on the previous syllable: Un afrodisíaco que aumenta la líbido. (An aphrodisiac that increases libido.) This change is surely due to influence from the word lívido, which means “pale” or “purplish.”

4. Desternillarse vs. destornillarse

Have you ever heard the expression destornillarse de risa (to laugh hysterically)? The correction version would be desternillarse because it comes from ternilla (rib) and not tornillos (screws), no matter how often we have the image of screws falling from someone’s head from laughter.

5. Infligir vs. infringir

Infligir or infringir? That is the question. Infligir means to cause damage or to punish (inflict), while infringir means to break a law (infringe): Infringió el reglamento. (They infringed on the rule.) The curious thing is that these two verbs have led to the forms inflingir and infrigir, which are incorrect.

Spanish Homophones

As we discussed earlier, Spanish homophones are words that sound the same. In Spanish, this usually is because certain letters sound the same, such as B and V or Y and LL.

1. Bello vs. vello

If you’ve ever seen the comment qué vello on someone’s photo, what was meant was that it looks pretty, but it literally meant “how hairy/fuzzy.” A person or a place is bello, i.e. easy on the eyes, while vello is a type of downy hair on certain parts of the body. There are also fruits that are covered in vello.

2. Valla vs. vaya

A valla is a barrier that closes off a place and prevents access. However, the word vaya is an interjection used to comment on something, whether surprise or disappointment: ¡Vaya, qué pena que no venga! (Oh, too bad they’re not coming!) Watch out for the other word that sounds the same: baya (berry).

3. Basto vs. vasto

This mistake is very common. When we say that something or someone is basto, it means ugly or disagreeable, the contrary of bello. When we say that something is vasto, we’re saying it’s extensive or vast: Tiene un vasto conocimiento sobre ese campo. (They have extensive knowledge about that field.)

4. Revelar vs. rebelar

Revelar with a V means “to reveal,” but when it’s written with a B, it has to do with rebelling or protesting: Los estudiantes se rebelan contra la universidad. (The students are protesting against the university.)

5. Echo vs. hecho

Hecho is the past participle of the verb hacer (to make, to do): Han hecho un llamamiento. (They made a call.) However, echo is the first person singular form of the verb echar (to give, throw, or get rid of something): Le echo de comer al perro y nos vamos. (I’ll give the dog some food and then we’ll go.)

This article originally appeared on the Spanish edition of Babbel Magazine.

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