7 of My Cringe-Worthy Spanish Mistakes

Language learning is a long, arduous process of aligning concepts, words, and registers. Slip up with one of these three categories, and you’ll find your foot in your mouth. These slip-ups are adorable when you’re a kid; for example, I used to think that “fencing” was an Olympic sport where the fastest fence builder got a gold medal. But, when you’re an adult, these mistakes are anything but cute. What’s more, there is nothing like living in a foreign country to show you not just how much you have yet to learn, but everything you have to relearn.

My misadventures with Spanish began upon my arrival in Madrid. Seeing my second language used in real life was proving to be quite different from what I’d learned in school. Cue some funny Spanish mistakes. Let’s look at a few of the main offenders:

Pares / Impares

What I thought it meant: As I always saw this in the metro next to the exits, I assumed they were street names

What it really means: Even and odd (referring to street numbers)

Back story: My first days in Madrid were filled with piso-hunting, and the subway was the way I hopped from neighborhood to neighborhood. At each metro exit, there was a little sign that read Pares/Impares. After two or three different stops, I began to wonder how such long streets could transverse the entirety of the city. Later, a cursory Google search showed the error of my ways. (Sure, I could read medieval novels in my upper-level Spanish classes, but navigating the real-world? That takes practice!)

funny spanish mistakes

Found the metro…now I just have to learn my pares from my impares

Venta al por mayor

What I thought it meant: Products discounted for the elderly

What it really means: Bulk sales

Back story: When I first saw this on a hand-written sign in a store window, I latched onto “mayor” and mistakenly thought it referred to products for the 65+ crowd (los mayores). Months later I saw this expression used again, this time in relation to seeds and nuts. After pondering why older people would qualify for such a discount, I consulted an online dictionary and finally understood that the expression referred to “bulk sales”–and not just for the older generations!

funny spanish mistakes

I’m sure that the prizes at the feria de Córdoba were bought al por mayor with little kids in mind

Claro

What I thought it meant: Of course! / Duh!

What it really means: Of course! / Sure / Certainly / Right

Back story:  Before coming to Madrid, I thought “claro” was only every used to show an emphatic “Of course!” Then, one day in conversation with a teacher, the word “claro” kept coming up. Again. And again. And again. I was a bit miffed, because when I considered the tone she was using, I thought this co-teacher was saying “DUH!” and “YES, you dumb guiri!” My ears started to become more attuned to this word, and after that I noticed it in nearly every Spanish conversation. Eventually I realized that “claro” is simply an easy, default way of showing agreement. Whereas in English we might use “right” as an informal way of agreeing, “claro” covers everything from “sure” to “CERTAINLY!” and everything in between.

Hnos

What I thought it meant: Honorary

What it really means: “Hermanos,” or “Brothers”

Back story:  Whenever I’d seen signs for “Hermanos Sanz” or similar, I always just assumed these guys were some illustrious characters. When I did finally learn what “hnos” stood for, it was one of those “AH-HA!” moments. (Followed closely by a “CLARO…I should’ve known that” moment.)

funny spanish mistakes

Whew! I’m not the only one who gets lost in translation at times

Ntra

What I thought it meant: Neutral

What it really means: Nuestra. Most often seen in religious example such as “Nuestra señora de la Paloma” (Our lady of…).

Back story: Of course I knew what “nuestra” meant, but I don’t recall having seen the abbreviation before coming to Madrid. Like in the case of “Hnos,” it took seeing seeing both forms next to each other before understanding the meaning.

funny spanish mistakes

Something something of The Peace?

Menos mal

What I thought it meant: Too bad / What a pity

What it really means: Thank goodness!

Back story: I still cringe at what a heartless person I must have seemed when I used this one incorrectly. I was visiting my friend Cindy after not having practiced Spanish for months, so many of the phrases she used were new to me. One such expression I’d picked up was “menos mal.” From context I’d deduced it to mean “too bad.” One day, she told me that one of her friends couldn’t come over as promised. “Menos mal!” I exclaimed. She gave me a peculiar look, which is when I learned that menos mal actually meant. Later I went back and apologized profusely for my mistake, and fortunately my friend wasn’t offended.

funny spanish mistakes

Cindy and I (and no hard feelings, Menos mal!)

Salir en pelotas

What I thought it meant: To be (photographed) with a ball

What it really means: To be (photographed) naked

Back story: When Liz, creator of the blog Young Adventuress, asked me to discuss a cultural mishap, I knew that it would have to be a linguistic example. This language misunderstanding, as recalled on Liz’s blog,  is still one of my silliest–and most innocent:

“[A] Spanish friend was showing me photos of her trip to the southern shores. At one point she paused and warned me, “Salgo en pelotas. Te molesta?” I shook my head no. Wise woman that I am, I knew that pelotas meant balls. And, judging from the beachy context, I guessed that she’d be posing with a beach ball. Imagine my surprise when my friend clicked the screen and there she was, jumping from the sand in glorious, naked freedom. And that’s the story of how I learned that “estar en pelotas” means to be naked.

Have you made any funny Spanish mistakes–or mistakes in another second language? Leave a comment so I know I’m not the only one!

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29 Comments

  1. I love the “Claro” one! One of my friends in Bilbao told me she always imagined them saying “clearly!” in a super sarcastic way, even though she knew that wasn’t it. Now that’s all I think of when I hear it!

    • Cassandra

      Poor, maligned “claro”–it gets such a bad rap from English speakers!

  2. I also struggle with “menos mal”. It just doesn’t sound like it means “thank goodness!”

    One that got me at first was “buffet libre”, which I originally translated as “free buffet”, as in you don’t have to pay for it. Oops!

    Oh, and my latest one was “dotado”, which my friend used to describe how he wasn’t experiencing hair loss like his other guy friends. I figured from the context that it probably meant “blessed”, but when I was telling other people about how he’d told me he was “bien dotado”, everyone burst into laughter. Yeah, that one means “endowed”…

    • Cassandra

      “Menos mal” seems to create lots of problems!

      And–I had to laugh at your experience with “bien dotado.” What a classic! you won’t forget the meaning of that one anytime soon :)

    • I just have this THING where I think “menos mal” should be followed by subjunctive because whatever you thought was going to happen or could happen DIDN’T, but no. I know the rules and all, and to Mario it seems like the dumbest debate ever, but I still get harrumphy (yes, that’s a word) about this.

  3. My problem always came with wanting to use the contrary to “menos mal”. If “menos mal” means “thank goodness”, what could mean “unfortunately” but “MÁS mal”? As in “grrr…tuve que ir al supermercado y luego al banco, y más mal, había una cola que flipas…”
    Juan never got on board with that one. hehehe.

    • aaaaand your blog has me saved as “Katue” and I didn’t notice. Sorry!
      -Katie

      • Cassandra

        Haha, I’m surprised Juan shot down your suggestion of “más mal.” Perhaps it sounds too similar to “aun peor”? I love that you tried to champion this new term!

  4. Haha these are so cute! Oh man, learning a language always comes with such exquisite shame :)

    • Cassandra

      Agreed :s At least we will not forget the words once the dust has settled !

  5. These little anecdotes are really hilarious and I could relate to a lot of ‘em. While I’ve been using “claro” as “right” without knowing it for years, it wasn’t until a couple months ago that I decided that *that* is how you would translate the word into English, or even a “mm hmm” or what have you.

    Re: Ntra—I had to pick up on that stuff pretty fast because my first school was called CEIP Ntra. Sra. de la Fuensanta. Also, don’t forget about Stª Mª standing for Santa Maria, etc. They sure do love their abbreves in Spain :P

    Re: menos mal—I learned this one by context when I sent a picture of some cookies I had baked to my Spanish roommates’ WhatsApp group, and one of the roommates replied “menos mal que tú mandaste una foto porque lo hubiera comido todo!” implying our other roommate would have eaten all the cookies (and the guy who sent the message would never have known about the cookies in the first place!) hahaha

    Thinking about “menos mal” as literally “less bad” always makes me giggle, but I’m wondering: how would you translate “and what’s worse” into Spanish? i.e., “más mal” is wrong but what’s the opposite counterpart of “menos mal”? Inquiring minds want to know!

    • Cassandra

      Glad you could relate to my language struggles, Trevor! It’s fascinating to me how each of these hard-(l)earned concepts comes with a story, and it’s clear that this is also the case for you. What a funny story about the cookie photo in the WhatsApp group!

      I was thinking that “and what’s worse” would be “aun peor”–what do you think?

  6. I intuitively knew the pares/impares deal, it’s the same in French (pair/impair). From context, I guessed that Nstra. was Nuestra. But I don’t think I would ever have guessed that Hnos is Hermanos! And good to know about menos mal and salir en pelotas, I won’t be making those mistakes anymore!

    • Cassandra

      Ohh, you have a bit of a leg-up then when it comes to Spanish! There are still plenty of tricky expressions out there, though ;)

  7. I can relate all too well to these! I always thought “hnos” meant “hornos”, as if “oven” were referring to a bakery or something of the sort. And I still get confused about the “pares” vs “impares” stuff! I usually end up getting lost anyways, haha.

    • Cassandra

      It’s funny how one little abbreviation can create so many different possibilities!

  8. Oh gosh, I know there is a good one. Oh yes, the sign where it says “Excmo Ayuntamiento” or something like that, and I thought it meant “exclamativo” or something stupid like that. Never made a lick of sense!

    • Cassandra

      Language classes should really teach abbreviations. REALLY, TRULY!

  9. “Salir” means to appear/show up/go out, not to necessarily be photographed – right?

    “Salí en la tele” = “I appeared on TV”
    “Salgo en pelotas” = “I appear naked” or “I go out on the street naked”!

  10. I did the same thing with ‘venta al mayor’. Too me 3 months to figure it out! My experiene is that pene and peine are just pronounced too closely for comfort. In class one day, I said I brushed my hair with a penis! Needless to say, that was laughed about for a while

    • Cassandra

      Haha! I’ve taken to avoiding that word, as I can never seem to pronounce it properly.

      A few years ago I also had trouble with cajones/cojones, but thankfully that problem was easier to fix ;)

  11. Haha, I love these and even though I live in Italy, coming from Miami this list makes sense after reading the explanations!

    • Cassandra

      Glad you can relate, Tiana! Ahh, the joys of language learning…

  12. Similar to your pares y Impares mistake I once asked where the city of Cambio de Sentido was as I saw signs pointing to it all along the Spanish highways……..duh!

  13. Oh, how on earth did I miss this post, Cassandra? Such a good one for anyone learning Spanish : ) Thanks for saving me from these mistakes!

    • Cassandra

      Glad to be of help! I’ve had some friends in Madrid say that they were making some of these same mistakes unknowingly. Makes me wonder what else I’m getting wrong ;)

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