Spanish Nouns With Two Genders

Gender changes meaning of a few dozen words

kite for lesson on gender in Spanish
Una cometa. (A kite.).

Karen Blaha / Creative Commons.

Nearly all nouns in Spanish are always masculine or always feminine. But there are a few nouns that can be of either gender.

In most cases, those are the nouns describing what people do for a living, and the gender varies with the person the word stands for. Thus, for example, el dentista refers to a male dentist, while la dentista refers to a female dentist. Un artista is a male artist, while una artista is a female artist. Most of the occupational words that follow this pattern end in -ista. One common exception is atleta: un atleta is a male athlete, while una atleta is a female athlete.

When Gender Affects Meaning

But there are a few nouns where the matter of gender is more complicated. Those are the nouns whose meanings vary depending on the gender of articles or adjectives used with them. Here is a list of the most common such words; only the basic or most usual meanings are included here.

  • batería: el batería = male drummer; la batería = battery, female drummer
  • busca: el busca = pager (electronic device); la busca = search
  • cabeza: el cabeza = male in charge; la cabeza = head (body part), female in charge
  • calavera: el calavera = excessively hedonistic man; la calavera = skull
  • capital: el capital = investment; la capital = capital city, capital letter
  • circular: el circular = pie chart; la circular = circular (printed notice)
  • cólera: el cólera = cholera; la cólera = anger
  • coma: el coma = coma; la coma = comma
  • cometa: el cometa = comet; la cometa = kite
  • consonante: el consonante = rhyme; la consonante = consonant
  • contra: el contra = drawback or organ pedal; la contra = opposing attitude or an antidote
  • corte: el corte = cut, blade; la corte = court (law)
  • cura: el cura = Catholic priest; la cura = cure
  • delta: el delta = delta (of a river); la delta = delta (Greek letter)
  • doblez: el doblez = fold, crease; la doblez = double dealing
  • editorial: el editorial = editorial (opinion article); la editorial = publishing business
  • escucha: el escucha = male sentry or guard; la escucha = female sentry or guard, the act of listening
  • final: el final = end; la final = championship game in a tournament
  • frente: el frente = front; la frente = forehead
  • guardia: el guardia = policeman; la guardia = protection, custody, guard, police force, policewoman
  • guía: el guía = male guide; la guía = guidebook, female guide
  • haz: el haz = bundle or light beam; la haz = face or surface (La haz is an exception to the rule about using el with feminine nouns beginning with a stressed a sound.)
  • mañana: el mañana = future; la mañana = morning
  • margen: el margen = margin; la margen = bank (as of a river)
  • moral: el moral = blackberry bush; la moral = morale, morality
  • orden: el orden = order (opposite of chaos); la orden = religious order
  • ordenanza: el ordenanza = order (opposite of chaos); la ordenanza = orderly
  • papa: el papa = pope; la papa = potato
  • parte: el parte = document; la parte = portion
  • pendiente: el pendiente = earring; la pendiente = slope
  • pez: el pez = fish; la pez = tar or pitch
  • policía: el policía = policeman; la policía = police force, policewoman
  • radio: el radio = radius, radium; la radio = radio (In some areas, radio is masculine in all uses.)
  • tema: el tema = subject; la tema = obsession (traditionally feminine for this meaning, although in modern usage tema is usually masculine for all uses)
  • terminal: el terminal = electrical terminal; la terminal = shipping terminal
  • trompeta: el trompeta = male trumpeter; la trompeta = trumpet, female trumpeter
  • vista: el vista = male customs officer; la vista = view, female customs officer
  • vocal: el vocal = male committee member; la vocal = vowel, female committee member

Why Some Nouns Have Two Genders

The reasons some of the nouns in this list have two genders is lost in history, but in a few cases the dual gender is a matter of etymology: The masculine noun and feminine are separate words that only coincidentally have the same sound and spelling, making them homographs.

Among the homograph pairs on this list are:

  • El papa comes from Latin, which is common for words related to Catholicism, but la papa comes from Quechua, an indigenous South America language.
  • Both el haz and la haz come from Latin. The former comes from fascis, the latter from facies.
  • El coma comes from a Greek word referring to a deep sleep. While la coma has Greek origins, it came directly to Spanish from Latin.
  • El pez comes from the Latin piscis, while la pez comes from the Latin pix or picis.
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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Nouns With Two Genders." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Spanish Nouns With Two Genders. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Nouns With Two Genders." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).