. . . la naturaleza crea sus pro­pios pentagramas . . . 

Nature creates her own pentagrams? While working on a translation yesterday, that’s how I first translated this fragment while doing a slapdash run-through. Making a mental note, all the while, to go back and look into that, because pentagrams just sounded off and the reference to Satanism or Wicca was out of left field. (This symbol has strong historical ties to many other religions and cultural traditions, but I feel that these days its associations with the occult are best known.)

Nope, it was a false cognate, a falso amigo. It turns out that pentagrama in Spanish almost always refers to a music staff (US) or stave (UK). You know, those five lines where you see the clefs, time signature, and notes. It’s masculine: el pentagrama. I know this would never happen, but I like the thought of someone getting a tattoo of a pentagram in a Spanish-speaking country, only to be crestfallen when they see five lame-o lines on their body instead of the fierce symbol they wanted. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to make a point of thrusting a reference to music staffs into a conversation sometime soon. I wouldn’t want to keep the word pent up.

music staff stave pentagrama

How do you say pentagram in Spanish? That is, the 5-pointed star inside a circle. You have two choices: pentagrama or pentáculo. (Reminiscent of this word.) Technically, pentagrama is just the star, and pentáculo is when said star is encircled. (If we were sticklers, we’d call this a pentacle in English–the word exists.) A pentagram can also be called an estrella de cinco puntas, which you might have to say to the uninitiated. Like yours truly: a little embarrassing, but I didn’t know the word pentagram in English until a few months ago. And from what I’ve read, the vast majority of Spanish speakers only associate pentagrama with its musical meaning. The 5-pointed stars need to step up their PR campaign in both languages. Here I am doing what I can to help!

The translation made sense with pentagrama as music staff because the artist took pictures of birds and vegetation clusters on overhead power lines, then transcribed them as if they were notes on a staff. And then she turned it into music for a musical trio and a music box. One thing I love about translation: I get to see the world through such diverse sets of eyes on a daily basis.

pentagram pentagrama pentáculo

With beginners’ false cognate snafus well behind me, it’s not too often that I run into new ones. But when I do, they’re always really interesting. Say, complaciente and complacent, or condescendiente and condescending. Have you tripped over or dodged any tricky false cognates lately?

10 responses to “Pentagram

  1. Another interesting one :) And yes, there are English words which give me trouble because they seem to only partially overlap with the almost-identically sounding Polish words.


  2. There doesn’t seem to be many Spanish-Polish false friends, and besides I haven’t been using Spanish recently. Of course there are plenty Spanish-English ones, but you already cover those regularly.

    Interestingly there are some Italian-Spanish ones, which I find confusing. One of those that make me pause most often is “salire” which means “go up; climb; get on (a means of communication), etc.” As you can see, pretty much the opposite of “salir”. Oh, and just like in Spanish, the Italian word for “warm” is confusing if your first thought is the similar word in English.


    • Aha. Yes, salire would trip me up as well. I had to look up warm in Italian- caldo. What’s the similar word in English? Or maybe it’s cordial? In lieu of other comments, I’m happy to learn some Italian here ;)


  3. The similar word I meant is obviously “cold” ;)


    • It wasn’t obvious at all for me :) Caldo only makes me think of soup and broth- obviously my brain is soaked in Spanish.

      (I meant cordial in Italian- it was another translation of warm that I saw- not in English, btw.)


  4. cínico and cynical, but maybe we’ve already talked about that one. Good find, I didn’t know about this, but I guess I don’t talk about music that much (or sorcery, for that matter).


  5. Some false cognates between Portuguese and Spanish have surprised me recently during my time in Angola.
    Exquisito, means strange in Portuguese.
    Oficina is a workshop
    Lama and lodo have reverse meaning


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