English definition of “actual”:

existing in fact; typically as contrasted with what was intended, expected, or believed.

Spanish definition of “actual”:

current, present, contemporary

These are clearly false friends and many ESL resources list “actual” as a false friend with Romance language “actual.”

However, English is polysemic and “actual” can also mean

existing now; current

For example — Projected income exceeded actual (current) income.

Is this a case of actual being a cognate and false friend between English and Spanish?

  • 2
    I wouldn’t call them cognates, at least not in the strict sense. French actuel and Spanish actual are both mediaeval Romance re-borrowings from Classical Latin actuālis, so you could reasonably argue those are cognates (even though they are not inherited forms); but when English then borrowed it from French, that ‘broke the chain’ of strict cognacy. Dec 2, 2023 at 13:01
  • 4
    Yes, actual in Spanish, French and Portuguese is a false friend with actual in English in 99% of cases. English is polysemic? Hmm. Spanish has tons of words with more than one meaning, as do Portuguese and French. actual income there is not current. It means the real income.
    – Lambie
    Dec 2, 2023 at 15:54
  • 6
    It's perfectly normal for a false friend to be a cognate. This simply means a word has undergone a meaning change in one daughter language (of the language it came from), but not in the other.
    – Alazon
    Dec 2, 2023 at 22:33
  • 1
    Aren't most false friends cognate in some sense?
    – Graham H.
    Dec 6, 2023 at 16:29

1 Answer 1


Yes, like many false friends, they are true cognates.

From the Wiktionary definition of cognate

English embarrassed is a true cognate of Spanish embarazada but is a false friend because the modern meanings differ.

English much and Spanish mucho are false cognates because they came by their similar meanings via completely different Proto-Indo-European roots.

(One comment suggested that words that are borrowed may be somehow not fully cognates. But under the more conventional definition, they can be cognates.)

I’d suggest there are actually three dimensions here, not two:

  • Same meaning
  • Same root
  • Same sound or appearance

There are countless pairs of words with the same root and same meaning, but a different sound and appearance, like English I and Gujarati હું ().

  • Any definition that makes embarrass and embarazar (to use the base verb forms rather than their past participles – not that I think that makes much of a difference) cognates is not conventional. Embarazar is an ancestor (through loans) of embarrass, and it is definitely not conventional to say that ancestral forms are cognate to their derivates (e.g., Old English fæder and Modern English father or English sofa and Chinese 沙发 shāfā are also not cognates). Cognacy is about parallel development from a common source. Dec 5, 2023 at 13:00
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Maybe you can point us to another source that states or at least implicitly uses the definition you think is conventional? Dec 5, 2023 at 13:39
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet Spanish embarazar is not the ancestor of English embarrass. Rather, they share a common ancestor. Dec 5, 2023 at 13:40
  • If someone asked “Are German Internet and Russian интернет cognates?”, it’d be a bit misleading to say no. Likewise for English internet and German Internet. Dec 5, 2023 at 13:42
  • 2
    English embarrass is borrowed from French embarrasser, which was borrowed from Spanish embarazar seemingly some time in the 16th or 17th century. As such, they do not share a common ancestor (except to the extent that 17th-century Spanish is the ancestor of current-day Spanish, but both fall under Modern Spanish, so that’s a stretch). Dec 5, 2023 at 13:43

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