This morning in my Spanish class, I learnt that “estoy constipada” means “I have a cold”. Talk about false friends. So how did this word come to take a different meaning in English and in French? Its etymology reveals all:

[Latin cōnstīpāre, cōnstīpāt-, to crowd together : com-, com- + stīpāre, to cram.]

So originally, it denotes a crowding, which became restricted to the intestine in English and in French, and to the nose in Spanish. This is the result of a very quick search, if anyone has more information, I’d love to hear it.

By | 2009-01-30T13:53:27+00:00 January 30th, 2009|Words|8 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Neij January 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    I seem to remember that “embarazada” means “pregnant”… another false friend… there’s a lovely story on Wikipedia:
    ‘ “When Parker Pen entered the Mexican market, its advertisements which claimed that Parker Pens “won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you” was mistranslated to “No te embarazará chorreándose en tu bolsillo” which means “Won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you”. ‘
    Quoted from
    Accessed 2009-01-30 15:05 GMT

  2. Fabio January 30, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    But are you really “constipada”? If yes, I hope you get well soon. Being “constipada” is definitely not a good thing 🙂
    Oh, Céline, I meant to ask you: can you change you RSS fee into “full” mode? I, and certainly many other readers, read favorite blogs in a RSS reader, and having to visit the blog to read the rest of the post isn’t really very productive. Of course, if you switch to the “full” mode, you’ll lose visitors here on the blog itself, but on the other hand maybe you’ll have even more “faithful” readers via RSS. Anyway, it’s just an idea.
    Enjoy the weekend, whether or not “constipada”! 🙂

  3. céline January 30, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    No I’m fine, I can’t even remember why it came up.
    I’m currently having my site redesigned, which is awfully exciting, I’ll pass on your RSS request to my webmistress.
    Have a lovely weekend too.

  4. Essentials January 30, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    I know a similar story about “embarazada”. A good friend of mine went to Spain, and instead of using ’embarrassed’ he used ’embarazada’, and of course it all turned into a hillarious momento.
    The list of false friends is perhaps even greater in Romanian. A very funny one is ‘prezervativ’, which means ‘condom’ in English. Imagine another friend of mine going inside a shop in Romania and ask for ‘lapte fara prezervativi’ (milk without.. condoms) when she should have asked for ‘lapte fara conservanti’.
    No need to say how funny that was!
    And there are so many more. I could talk about this forever – hehe.
    Take care

  5. Clara February 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    As far as I’ve read, it seems that “constipado” also had that ‘intestinal’ meaning till the XIX century, and then it started to be used meaning “nasal congestion” or “cold”. However, in Argentina and Chile “constipado” has retained its original meaning, as in English and French. I don’t know if you have come across the journal Panace@, very useful indeed if you happen to translate medicine or biosciences. Panace@ Vol. VII, nº 23, June 2006, ( has a two-page reference to the “constipado” issue. Enjoy the reading!
    Clara from bootheando

  6. Lucia February 2, 2009 at 5:23 am

    Hi Celine,
    I just found your website, and I really like it. I’m from Mexico, but live in Houston, Texas, and I have worked as English-Spanish translator for more than 11 years now.
    When I read you post, I just felt the need to tell you that the phrase “Estoy constipada” not only means “I have a cold” but it is in fact more commonly used to say “I am constipated”. At least in Mexico, if you say “Estoy constipada” we will assume you are constipated, and not that you have a cold. If you want to say you have a cold you should day “Estoy resfriada”.
    Best, Lucía

  7. jean-paul February 2, 2009 at 7:12 am

    The usual phrase is “false cognates” although “false friends” is also used.
    How about ‘bizarro’ meaning ‘brave’?!!
    Also US and UK differences:
    “Billion” : In the US a thousand million. In the UK a thousand times that amount.
    It may not matter to us, ordinary mortals, but it does matter to Bill GATES who is a millionaire, that is to say a “milliardaire” in French.

  8. Marcelo February 3, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Well, it have both meanings for us in Portuguese (from Brazil). Intestine and nose.
    No false friend about it. We call it, btw, “falso cognato”. And it doesn’t.
    “Embarazada” maybe. For us, it means “tied”, “embarrassing”, “puzzling”, entangled…
    greetings from Brazil

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