Fun With False Cognates: On Compromise


The Proposal

If you are ever in an argument in a Spanish speaking country, please think twice before saying something like, “Podemos comprometer nos?”

To your English-speaking ears, it might sound like you just suggested a compromise, right? Oh, yes, indeedy. You certainly did. A really big one.

You asked if you two could get married.

Well, technically, engaged.

No matter with which sex your arguing partner happens to hold membership, you are now in big trouble. Unless, of course, you had planned to ask anyway but at a more auspicious moment.

But back to the word, comprometer.  Needless to say, using it without understanding that it means something different in English from what it says in Spanish paves the way for some serious misunderstandings.

It also opens an interesting linguistic can of worms.

In English, the modern accepted meaning of “compromise” is that each side of an argument concedes something so that agreement can be reached.

The word is composed of “promise,” with roots in Medieval Latin and Middle English and the prefix “com-“, meaning “with,” which is of decidedly Latin origin.

In English, “promise” has always meant that something could definitely be expected, and in “the olden days” often did refer to marriage, specifically.  Put that with “com-“ and your root for “compromise” means “promise together.”  So it’s not such a stretch for the Spanish usage, is it?

Still, the modern English usage of “compromise” implies negativity and loss, and the process of becoming engaged is supposed to be fairy-tale happy, right?  That makes it a bit difficult to make the language flip in your head.  On the other hand, if we believe the movies and most novels, marriage is definitely a compromise – even a lifelong process of compromise.  So it shouldn’t be that hard to remember to avoid this particular false cognate.

Especially considering the possible fall-out.