Beware of “Gangas” and “Grocerías”: Two Exasperatingly Common False Cognates - Translation Skills Training

Beware of “Gangas” and “Grocerías”: Two Exasperatingly Common False Cognates

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Beware of “Gangas” and “Grocerías”: Two Exasperatingly Common False Cognates

Many, if not most practicing or aspiring Analytic Linguists can be distinguished and described in terms of their linguistic background.  They can be divided into two groups: heritage speakers of Spanish, whose dominant language from Kindergarten through college was English, with Spanish spoken at home, and immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries who learned English at various ages, for whom Spanish remains dominant and for whom English is a professional and daily necessity.  Both of these populations face the dangers of linguistic interference – and some of its playfulness and joys in social and family life.

The creation and diffusion of false cognates is one of the most obvious manifestations of linguistic interference and is relatively easy to examine and potentially rectify.  A false cognate is a word in one language that is spelled the same or nearly the same as in another but which has a different meaning and usage.  A pair of false cognates may or may not be pronounced the same or nearly the same in both languages.

Textbooks for English-speaking students of Spanish are quick to point out what false cognates are, but reading about them is not an antidote for preventing this form of linguistic interference to manifest itself either as a sporadic error or to become fossilized from repeated and uncorrected use.  When a newly emerging bilingual is in a hurry, it often does little good to have read that a librería is not a library, but a bookstore and that instead, biblioteca is a library or that a dormitorio is a bedroom and that the US English living arrangement for college students of a dorm[itory] resists translation into Spanish for cultural and economic reasons (although residencia estudiantil works fine) since traditionally, in Spanish-speaking countries, college-age students live at home or in a pensión where it is common to find renters of multiple generations.  For Spanish-speaking students of English, the same lessons have to be learned, but in the opposite direction.

Since false cognates abound among languages of the same family (English and Spanish being European languages with many common roots), there are dictionaries of false cognates.  Seeing how thick they are can be discouraging, but by adulthood, most proficient Spanish-English bilinguals have eliminated the use of false cognates since their brain has linguistically differentiated them. For Spanish, though, the constant pressure of linguistic interference exerted by large numbers of learners of English as a second language, along with children in both groups described above who are at varying stages of language acquisition of both English and Spanish has produced a few false cognates that seem to refuse to die even as individual speaker may resolve them.

Many false cognates are easily confused or associated with Spanglish, Pocho and Pachuquismos. Technically speaking, Spanglish is simply the mixing of the two languages using words from each language in the same sentence or a borrowing from one or the other language, either Hispanizing or Anglicizing, both in pronunciation and morphology, depending on the direction, but without changing the meaning or usage of the language of origin.  That said, many speakers of Spanglish frequently, if not regularly, also use false cognates in both directions.  Thus, marketa is an example of Spanglish, but it is not a false cognate because it is merely a borrowing from English word market (sometimes ultra-Hispanized and spelled marqueta).  Another example, seen on signage in Tijuana, is furnituría instead of the standard Spanish mueblería.

Pocho is a usually perjorative term used by speakers of “proper” (i.e., Mexican) Spanish to characterize the speech of anyone (Hispanic, Latino or even Anglos) who butchers the grammar, morphology, pronunciation and potentially any feature of Spanish, but somehow make themselves understood to native speakers of Spanish.  The terms also is used to refer to the person: pocho or pocha.  A Spanglish speaker may be capable of differentiating his or her speech and speaking both standard English and Spanish.  By definition, a pocho or pocha is unable to speak, read or write standard Spanish.

Pachuco Spanish is a cultural and historical phenomenon unique to certain Spanish speakers of the Southwestern United States, particularly in urban areas.  It is associated with and arises from the zoot-suit culture of certain Spanish speakers of the 1930s and 1940s who did not, could not or would not conform to traditional Mexican language or culture and who were rejected out of hand by the majority Anglo culture that surrounded them.  Pachuco culture and language patterns persist and has evolved in the same or similar socio-economic groups, now identifiable as low-rider and cholo culture.  Octavio Paz dedicates a chapter to examine pachuco culture in his famous work about Mexican culture, El laberinto de la soledad.  Most pachucos speak a form of Spanish that is understandable along the US-Mexican border, but it is noticeably different from standard Mexican Spanish.

Having explored the different socio-economic, cultural and linguistic mileus in which linguistic interference takes place, we are prepared to examine two truly egregious example of false cognates.  These two false cognates could cause more than confusion. They find their way into print media ocassionally or casual signage in public places.

The first false cognate that inspired this Tip for the Week is ganga, misused in Spanish to mean the same as the English word gang.  Eveyone who knows Spanish knows or should know that ganga means a bargain, a good deal.  The misuse, in Spanish, of this very real Spanish word to refer to what the similarly pronounced English word means in what makes ganga a false cognate.  Spanish speakers who use this word are lexically impaired or impovershed and, since they do not know the correct word, pandilla, are unlikely to be familiar with its important derivative pandillerismo, which refers to la vida loca (the crazy life[style]) of the people who are members of pandillas criminales.  In passing, it is interesting to note that among English-speaking criminal groups, being in the life is code for being in the mob or some other association of delinquents.

The second false cognate that inspired this Tip for the Week is grocerías (also spelled groserías, according to the word with which is confused).  Many pochos, and some Spanglish speakers use this false cognate to refer to what they buy at the marketa or marqueta, confusing it with the English word groceries!  Using this false cognate in the company of speakers of standard Spanish from any Spanish-speaking country could cause more than confusion, it could cause offense.  The pronunciation of the words grosería or grocería are the same on our side of the Atlantic and the Spanish word grosería can only mean (not merely suggest) some form of grossness that in any conceivable context is understood as sexually immoral or depraved in speech or lifestyle.

Finally, as mentioned at the beginning of this Tip for the Week, sometimes a false cognate or Hispanized English word (used as in English and hence not a false cognate) can become accepted because it is endearing.  I have a six-year-old nephew who loves to play with trocas and even his grandmother, who speaks practically no English and prides herself on her very proper (Mexican) Spanish, calls his toys troquitas, so I’m (almost) willing to recommend that these two words be included in the next edition of the DRAE.

© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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