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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Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Nouns With Two Genders." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/doubly-gendered-basics-3079264. Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 27). Spanish Nouns With Two Genders. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/doubly-gendered-basics-3079264 Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Nouns With Two Genders." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/doubly-gendered-basics-3079264 (accessed July 29, 2021).