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How to Increase your Spanish Vocab using Etymology!

Updated: May 25, 2020

Although cognates can sometimes confuse us, if we assume too much and infer incorrect meanings, the truth is their existence is more beneficial than harmful. Etymology can help us more than we think. I am not going to talk here about very common identical twins cognates, no-brainers such as ‘intelligent’ and ‘inteligente’, or ‘move’ and ‘mover’. I’m sure you have already noticed those. We will try to go a little further, dig a little deeper knowing that the reward is the expansion of our vocabulary, or maybe the final fastening of words that continue to sneak away from our memory again and again.

For instance, if you are a beginner and are trying to remember that the verb ‘think’ in English is ‘pensar’ in Spanish, the word ‘pensive’ could easily help you. And if pensive doesn't sound like anything to you, oh well, you will have learned a new English word to show off. There are many more. The word ‘oscuro’ is very different from ‘dark’, but also very similar to ‘obscure’, and they have the same meaning.

‘Learn’ and ‘aprender’ are not alike, but ‘aprender’ and ‘apprentice’ are very similar. To remember how to say ‘empty’ in Spanish maybe the word ‘vacant’ will ring a bell (empty: vacío). And to not forget what ‘creer’ means, ‘credibility’ could come to your rescue.

In the corridor they run (correr),

To the venue they come (venir),

In the dormitory they sleep (dormir),

If one is culpable, they blame him (culpar).

"The wind comes through the window". "El viento entra por la ventana".

Wind, window, viento, ventana.

In both languages the two nouns are etymologically related. ‘Wind’ and ‘viento’ sound very different from each other, but ‘ventilation’ and ‘ventilación’ are identical twins, and this can help you to remember several words.

For ‘should’ and ‘must’ we use the verb ‘deber’, which shares a Latin etymology with ‘debt’ and ‘due’ (debitus, debere: to owe something, to be under obligation to/for something). Why do you think ‘deberes’ means ‘homework’?

Debes pagar your debts and do your deberes!

There are many of these similarities and more often than not we find that they give us a hand in our learning. They establish connections where there were none before. The following are more terms with an etymological relationship. They don’t have exactly the same meaning and some are not the same part of speech, but they are different branches of the same tree. While a few of the English words are not very common, the Spanish ones are extremely so!


altitude – alto (tall, high),

quiet – quieto (still, motionless. Latin: *quietus, calm, at rest),

durable – duro, duradero (hard, tough, resilient, lasting),

unequivocal – equivocado (wrong),

dulcet – dulce (sweet),

limpid – limpio (clean),

acrid – agrio (sour, tart, bitter),

agreeable – agradable (nice),

gratuitous – gratuito, gratis (free of charge).


elect – elegir (to choose),

gain – ganar (to gain, to earn, to win),

necessity – necesitar (to need),

terminate – terminar (to finish),

mirror – mirar (to look at, to watch). Latin: mirari. Old French: mirour,

detention – detener(se) (to stop),

encounter – encontrar (to find),

visible – ver (to see), (Spanish adj: visible),

segue – seguir (continue, keep, follow, chase, pursue),

power – poder (Vulgar Latin: *poteere; can, to be able to, (n) power),

bronze – broncearse (to get a tan), (noun: bronce),

crescent – crecer (to grow, to rise), (Spanish adj: creciente)

enchanting – encantar, “me encanta” (“I love it” = “it’s enchanting to me”).

Latin: *incantãre; to put a spell on. (Spanish adj: encantador).


pectoral – pecho (chest),

pelage – pelo (hair),

edifice – edificio (building),

arbor – árbol (tree),

pain – pena (sorrow, punishment).

(“Valer la pena” = “be worth it, the sorrow/punishment)”.

~ If you enjoyed this article please share it with friends and give my page a like on Facebook! I’m a Spanish teacher based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since 2007 I have been exclusively teaching Spanish to people from all over the world. Whether looking for an online Spanish tutor, or in person while visiting Buenos Aires, please reach out to me with any questions you might have!~
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