No, this lesson has nothing to do with women’s rights or “boys will be boys”. It all deals with that element of Spanish which learners find perplexing at the beginning. Every noun under the sun in Spanish is either masculine or feminine, and it has nothing to do with sexual roles.
It originated from older languages from which Spanish evolved. So, you have to learn which is which for every noun you learn, but is it important? Indubitably so! Let me share a recent personal story with you. Having broken my leg in September, I was moving slowly and in a fog of aching. While going at a snail’s pace to enter a taxi, and with that ache fog kicking in, I said to the taxi driver, “Disculpe, es que tengo un pato malo.” The minute it slipped my mouth I knew I had the gender wrong (blame it on the ache!), and this was confirmed by the driver’s puzzled look. While trying to say that I had a bad “paw”, casual for foot or leg, I had actually said that I had a bad duck. I didn’t even try to backtrack with what I said, and the driver is probably still wondering about that strange lady who talks about her misbehaving bird.
So learn from my distressing and confusing mistake, and take the time to learn the correct gender. Here are a few general rules –
- If it ends in ión (and there are lots of these!) – it’s always feminine. If a noun ends in ia, it’s feminine. La panadería, la existencia
- Many words which end in ma, pa, ta originated from Greek and despite ending in A, are feminine. El mapa, el sistema, el cometa (an actual comet, as la cometa is a toy kite), One of these often used is problema, which is always masculine. No hay problema, used without an el or un is the correct way to say, “no problem”. But consider, El problema es una falta de dinero. La falta de dinero es un problema grave. And here I have to throw in my favorite chiste – Problems are always masculine, and solutions are always feminine (see Rule 1, la solución).A word which ends in ma is an exception to this rule – the alarm (as in an alarm system) is La alarma.
- Words which end in ón are always masculine. This is often added to a word to make it bigger. La silla is the chair, but el sillón is a big armchair.
- One of the trickiest and widely used word is agua. It is in essence a feminine word and when used plurally or modified it is said as las aguas, agua purificada. But watch out when it comes to being said with a singular the or one. It’s correct to say el agua, or un agua. Why, you ask? It all has to do with pronunciation. If the natural emphasis of the word falls on the first syllable where the a occurs, if you said la agua, it would morph into laaaaagua and not be intelligible. So there’s really a good reason for making this singular form masculine.
- Just as in my duck/paw story above, many words change completely when you change the gender. Watch out for the following: El Papa – the Pope, la papa – potato, el papá – the dad (here it’s just the accent that makes it different) / El cero – zero, la cera – wax / La mora – berry , el moro – the Moorish man / El mango – the fruit, la manga – sleeve, as in mangas largas o cortas / El caso – the case, matter, la casa – the house / La manguera – the hose, el manguero – the hoseman or fireman
- Common exceptions to watch out for: La mano – hand, as in las manos sucias, las manos limpias
Please develop the practice of always learning the gender when you learn a new noun, and avoid embarrassment, grief, and misunderstanding!