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Legal False Friends Part 1

A cognate or false friend is a word that is written similarly to a word in another language. Both words have a similar or identical meaning. Take información and information; líder and leader; carro and car.

Curiously enough, cognate comes from the Latin word cognatus, which also gave rise to the Spanish word cuñado: brother-in-law. Just as brothers-in-law need to be faithful to their relatives, cognates also must be faithful in meaning to each other.

Many words in Spanish would seem to be a perfect cognate with a similar sounding word in English, but oftentimes, this is too good to be true. When false friends are used in everyday conversation between a foreigner and a native speaker, they can make people laugh, but when used in a legal document, they can cause serious damage. Here are some examples:

  • Sentencia: Judgment, decision, ruling decree. The English terms apply to various court proceedings—not necessarily criminal. A sentence (false friend) is condena in Spanish, and refers to the punishment meted out to a defendant in a criminal case.

  • Secretario: Often, a court clerk. Secretario is especially used in Mexico. In English, a secretary is usually either an administrative assistant or a person holding a government office such as secretary of state. A court clerk has duties that exceed the duties of an office secretary. He/she is an officer of the court who maintains the records of the court and administers oaths.

  • Escribano: Although scribe could be a proper cognate, in most cases, especially Argentina, it is a notary public, also a person with a quill and parchment (read computer, printer and fancy pen).

  • Corte: This word came to Spanish through French. Yes, it does mean court. The question is: what kind of court? Corte is mostly used for high courts, either national or international. Corte Suprema is Supreme Court. Corte Internacional de la Haya is the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands. For lesser courts, they are called tribunales and juzgados.

  • Colegio: This term has two meanings in Spanish, one non-legal and the other legal: school, either kindergarten through twelfth grade or only high school and a professional association: colegio de profesores: teachers’ association, colegio de abogados: bar association.

  • Comisaría: A police station. A commissary as in canteen would be casino in Spanish.

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