Learning a language has a big theatrical component.
And like in theatre, there are many slip-ups, hiccups and at times confused laughter.
Sometimes we learn in the comfort of home, while other times it’s live action.
My first exposure to Spanish (and the theatrical slip-ups of language learning) was on a solo trip to Costa Rica during summer vacation in 2009.
I was in a crowded bar in a small port town in the Southern coast called Puerto Jimenez, squished between ticos (Costa Ricans) of varying sizes. At one point in the night, I found myself stuck beside a bizarre and squared looking man insisting that I try a fried pig’s ear from a small plastic bag he was holding in his left hand. “Toma…está muy rica” (Try it, it’s very delicious).
I kept avoiding eye contact as a means to ignore the situation. Finally I looked down only to notice the ear had little hairs sticking out of it, “Qué asco” (yuck) I thought, it was time to let this tico know that I wasn’t interested in him or his hairy pig ear. At that time, I still didn’t know how to say “Déjame en paz” (leave me alone) so I opted to use vocabulary I had already mastered…or so I believed.
I looked at the man square in the eye with all the confidence in the world and blurted out “Tengo mierda” (Literally: I have shit). My first slip-up and confused laughter on the Spanish stage, but alas, not the last. But the confusion wasn’t enough to hint that I had made a mistake, so my confidence grew and I said it again: “Tengo mierda…[pause]…de ti” (I have shit of/for you)…a complete language disaster.
I was so sure of myself that I said it again, even louder the third time around, alarmingly calling the attention of two young girls at the bar who looked over at us and fell into a giggle fit. The tico slowly put away the pig’s ear in his pocket, looking quite perplexed, he pointed down the halls towards the bathrooms “Allí…los baños” (The bathrooms are over there). I amazingly managed to scare the hairy-pig-ear guy off—perhaps a complete language success after all.
If you are making these mistakes, laugh really loud and say enhorabuena (congratulations) with a little pat on the shoulder! Smile and take a long deserved bow because you are on the stage to linguistic perfection my friends. Not to mention you’re accumulating many funny stories to tell your Spanish-speaking friends later on!
These words sound somewhat similar, often varying by only one vowel or consonant, which can put you in some situaciones graciosas (funny situations), as you’ll see.
10 Pairs of Spanish Words You’ve Gotta Learn to Avoid Embarrassing Slip-ups
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1. Mierda (Excrement) and Miedo (Fear)
- mierda (excrement)
- miedo (fear)
El niño manchó el pañal de mierda. (The baby stained the diaper with poo.)
Esta comida es una mierda. (This food sucks.)
Me dan miedo las películas de Freddy Kreuger. (I find Freddy Kreuger films scary.)
Solo una cosa vuelve un sueño imposible: el miedo a fracasar. (Only one thing can destroy a dream: the fear of failure.)
Despite their similar pronunciation, it does help of course that these two words will generally be used in completely different contexts. The second example is a commonly used expression, however, it should be avoided in formal settings as it can come off as vulgar or rude.
2. Pulpo (Octopus) and Pulpa (Pulp)
Sometimes we screw up our words on stage, and sometimes they simply slip our minds at those oh so inconvenient moments. Flash forward a few years later in Southern Spain in the coastal town of Huelva. Having now acquired a decent level of Spanish and being terribly sick the second time around, I decided to buy some orange juice from the corner store.
“I need one with pulp” I thought. Then, “Oh wait,” I thought nervously, “How do I say pulp? I should have brought my dictionary..stupid, stupid!” Being a bit of an obsessive perfectionist at times, I had promised myself at the beginning of the trip to carry a dictionary at all times in order to learn words within context, but alas the sniffles had taken me over.
I decided to overcome my fear and took matters into my own hands. I walked up to the shopkeeper, holding a tissue to my face to block my cough, and said, “Señor, busco zumo de naranja que tenga pulpo” (Sir, I’m looking for orange juice that contains octopus). Despite using the subjunctive tense correctly in “que tenga,” I screwed up the noun…pretty bad.
This time around the confused laughter tipped me off. He gave me a cheeky smile and responded in typical Andalusian fashion “Bueno, zumo sí tenemos pero tendrás que ir al mar para el pulpo” (Well, we have orange juice, but you’ll have to the go looking in the sea for the octopus).
When I heard the word mar (sea/ocean) I immediately clued in that I was in fact talking about octopus. My pulp was very lejos (far) from my reach.
And yet another lesson I will never forget. So let’s make it clear:
- pulpo (octopus)
- pulpa (pulp)
These two should be fairly easy to remember, since octopus starts with “o,” and pulpo ends in “o.” Just pair the o’s together!
Me gusta el pulpo a la parrilla. (I like grilled octopus.)
El pulpo tiene ocho brazos con los cuales nada. (Octopus have eight legs with which they swim.)
Prefiero el zumo con pulpa. (I prefer orange juice with pulp)
La pulpa gruesa da un sabor distinto a los zumos. – (Thick pulp adds a particular flavour to juice.)
And if you’re in Spain, know that you don’t need to worry about asking for pulp when you get your morning orange juice. Most places have freshly squeezed zumo de naranja (orange juice) from these amazing machines that pick up entire oranges and squeeze out the juice goodness—pulp and all. Trust me, once you’ve had real orange juice, you’ll never be able to go back to juice from concentrate!
3. Agujeros (Holes) and Agujetas (Sore Muscles)
The Spanish language has a curious way to express the feeling of pain following any form of physical activity. The word agujetas has no literal translation, as it can be soreness/stiffness/muscle pain depending on the context.
For example, we can get agujetas in our legs after a work out, or in our arms and back after a bad night’s sleep. [Editor’s note: Once while living in Spain I wrote to a guy the day after an ultimate frisbee tournament, and told him “Tengo agujeros” (I have holes) when I meant to say that I was sore…Whoops!]
- agujetas (muscle pain/stiffness)
- agujero(s) (hole(s))
Another similar-sounding word is agujas (needles), so be careful with that one, too.
Mi bolso tiene agujeros. (There are holes in my bag/purse.)
Hago agujeros en la arena para que me salgan burbujas de agua. (I make holes in the sand so that water bubbles pop up.)
Me gusta montar a caballo pero siempre tengo agujetas después. (I like to go horseback riding but I’m always stiff afterwards.)
Es probable que te salgan agujetas si vas al gimnasio después de no haber ido por mucho tiempo (You’d probably get muscle pain if you go to the gym after not having gone for a while.)
Mi abuela me hace vestidos con su aguja de punto (My grandmother makes me dresses with her knitting needle.)
4. Pelas (Money) and Pelos (Hair)
Across the Spanish-speaking world there are many informal words to express money or dolla’ bills. Plata is common in Latin America, whereas pasta is the equivalent in Spain, but there are also regional variations.
In Madrid, the word pelas is often used for money between friends when casually talking about lending each other some cash or “green backs.” Let’s make sure not to confuse this with pelos (hair), because no one wants to lend or pay with anyone’s hair.
- pelas (money) – slang commonly used in Spain
- pelo(s) (hair(s))
¿Tienes pelas? (Do you have money?)
¿Me dejas pelas? (Can you lend me some cash?)
No tienes ni un pelo (You don’t have any hair.)
Los pelos de mis piernas son largos (My leg hair is long)
5. Cocer (to Cook) and Coser (to Sew)
This word pair is tricky because depending on the country and region you are living or traveling in, the verbs cocer (to cook) and coser (to sew) are pronounced exactly the same and used in domestic contexts.
In Latin America and some parts of Southern Spain, there is no oral distinction made between the letters s and c. For instance, let’s say you are talking with a friend over the phone and they tell you,“Estoy cociendo” (I am cooking). In these locations, you could easily interpret that they are sewing.
Confusing? Yes. Avoidable? Depends where you are and if the person performing the action is visible.
- cocer (to cook a particular item of food) – Different from cocinar (to cook, in general)
- coser (to sew)
Has cocido demasiado el pan y se ha hecho muy duro. (You overbaked the bread and it became too hard.)
Algo se está cociendo en esta oficina. (Something odd is going on in this office.)
Coso un botón a la bufanda que hago para mi novio como regalo de Navidad. (I am sewing a button onto the scarf I am knitting for my boyfriend’s Christmas present.)
No te olvides coserlo a mano. (Don’t forget to sew it by hand.)
6. Papá (Dad) and Papa (Pope)
This next word pair only differs by where you place the stress of the word. Papá [pa-PA] is what young children call their father. If you’re not a young child, be sure to use the word padre instead.
If we put the stress on the first half of the word (which is what the lack of accent tells us to do) and it’s capitalized, we get the Spanish word for Pope: Papa [PA-pa].
- papá (dad, daddy)
- Papa (the Pope)
Lowercase papa means “potato” in Latin America (patata is “potato” in Spain), and means “chips” in Spain.
El Papa dio un discurso en el Vaticano. (The Pope gave a speech in the Vatican.)
Mi papá es ecuatoriano. (My daddy is from Ecuador.)
7. Caro (Expensive) and Carro (Car)
If you are a native English speaker, it’s very important that you learn how to roll your r’s in Spanish. After all, it’s the only difference between this word pair: caro (expensive) and carro (car).
Here’s a quick review: If the word begins with a capital R, or if there is an rr in the middle of a word, then this is indeed a strong r and yes, you’ll have to roll it.
If you’ve never been able to roll your r’s before, it’s a skill that can be learned! (You’re not just born with or without it.) It uses some tongue muscles that native English speakers don’t usually use, so try these methods to strengthen them and learn to roll your r’s (The first point in the “Tips” section is what got me to be able to do it).
- caro (expensive)
- carro (car)
El carro que quiero comprar es negro. (The car I want to buy is black.)
Ese restaurante es muy caro. (That restaurant is expensive.)
Tu carro es muy caro. (Your car is very expensive.)
8. Hombro (Shoulder) and Hombre (Man)
Another important aspect of pronunciation is the letter h. Since it’s often muted, as the language evolves it does get left out in spelling, resulting in mistakes. For example, hamaca (hammock) is sometimes spelled as amaca, or hecho (a fact) as echo, which is quite confusing because echo is actually the first person conjugation of the verb echar (to throw).
Keep the muted h in mind for this grouping:
- hombro (shoulder)
- hombre (man)
And these two are not to be confused with hambre (hunger), which shouldn’t really trip you up because it has a completely different vowel sound from this pair.
El hombro me duele bastante. (My shoulder really hurts.)
El hombre en la esquina es guapo. (That guy in the corner is good looking.)
…and a tricky one:
Cuando ese hombre tiene mucha hambre le empieza a doler el hombro. (When that guy is really hungry his shoulder starts to hurt.)
9. Cabello (Hair) and Caballo (Horse)
Once while I was getting ready with a friend for a night on the town in Barcelona, I blurted out “Tienes un caballo muy bonito” (You have a really nice horse). Of course there was no horse getting ready with us, so yes this was indeed another language blunder.
For the next word pair, try to associate the word bello (beautiful) with the second part of cabello (hair) in order to make sure your vocabulary doesn’t run wild!
- cabello (hair – exclusively for the hair on your head)
- caballo (horse)
Mi cabello es liso. (I have straight hair.)
Me gusta montar a caballo. (I like horseback riding.)
El caballo blanco tiene un cabello grueso. (The white horse has thick hair.)
10. Mayor (Old/Older) and Mejor (Better)
The last word pair is quite different in pronunciation, but can be confusing because the two words are both comparative adjectives and could easily be used in the same sentence or context.
The trick here is that mayor (old) will most often be used to describe someone’s age range, whereas mejor (better) is used in comparisons with other things and people. Mayor is also the word you’d use to differentiate your older sister, hermana mayor, from your younger sister, hermana menor.
- mejor (better)
- mayor (old/older)
Se le dan mejor las matemáticas a mi hermano que a mí. (My brother is better at math than I am.)
Mi abuela tiene 95 años, es bastante mayor. (My grandmother is 95 years old, she is quite old.)
And for a spin:
Cuando sea mayor, seré mejor persona. (I will be a better person when I get older.)
The Stage, Where We Truly Learn
Go ahead, make mistakes on the language stage! When you do, feel embarrassed but don’t forget to take a bow and feel proud that your slip-ups take you to the next scene, and a few steps closer to linguistic and cultural understanding.
Make lists, let yourself move and explore within your newly acquired vocabulary while never underestimating the value of mistakes. At times we must fall on stage! Hasta la próxima, amigos/as (Until next time friends)!
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