Spanish Nouns That Are Sometimes Masculine, Sometimes Feminine

Some nouns are of ambiguous gender

Palacio de Bellas Artes
Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City.

Esparta Palma / Creative Commons.

Nearly all nouns in Spanish can be placed in one of two categories — masculine and feminine. However, there are some words of ambiguous gender that don't fit quite so neatly.

Of course, some words, such as names of many occupations, are masculine when they refer to men and feminine when they refer to women, as in el dentista for the male dentist and la dentista for the female dentist. And there are some nouns whose meanings vary with gender., such as el cometa (comet) and la cometa (kite). However, there are also words that, for whatever reason, haven't been firmly established as being of one gender or the other.

List of Common Gender-Ambiguous Nouns

Following are the most common of these words. Where just el or la appears before the word, it is the gender that is viewed most widely as correct, and the gender that should be learned by foreigners. Where both appear, either gender is widely accepted, although the most commonly used gender is listed first. Where no gender is listed, the usage depends on region.

la acné — acne

el anatema — anathema

el arte — art — The masculine is used when arte is singular, but the feminine is often used in the plural, as in artes bellas (fine arts).

el autoclave — sterilizer

el azúcar — sugar — Although azúcar is a masculine word when standing alone, it is often used with feminine adjectives, as in azúcar blanca (white sugar).

la babel — bedlam

el calor — heat — The feminine form is archaic.

la/el chinche — small insect

el cochambre — dirt

el color — color — The feminine form is archaic.

el cutis — complexion

la dote — talent

la/el dracma — drachma (former unit of Greek currency)

la duermevela — brief, light, or interrupted sleep — Compound nouns formed by joining a third-person verb and a noun are nearly always masculine. However, the ending apparently has influenced usage of this word toward the feminine.

el enema — enema

los herpes — herpes

la/el Internet — Internet — The general rule is that nouns imported from other languages are masculine unless there's a reason for making them feminine. In this case, the feminine is often used because the word for a computer network (red) is feminine.

el interrogante — question

la Janucá — Hanukkah — Unlike the names of most holidays, Janucá is usually used without a definite article.

el/la lente, los/las lentes — lens, glasses

la libido — libido — Some authorities say that libido and mano (hand) are the only Spanish nouns ending in -o, other than shortened forms of longer words (such as foto for fotografía and disco for discoteca, or occupational words, such as la piloto for a female pilot), that are feminine. However, libido is often treated as masculine.

la/el linde — boundary

el mar — sea — Mar is usually masculine, but it becomes feminine in some weather and nautical usages (such as en alta mar, on the high seas).

el/la maratón — marathon — Dictionaries list maratón as masculine, but feminine usage is almost as common, perhaps because maratón is associated so closely with carrera (competitive race), which is feminine.

el/la mimbre — willow

la/el pelambre — thick hair

el/la prez — esteem, honor

la/el pringue — grease

radio — radio — When it means "radius" or "radium," radio is invariably masculine. When it means "radio," it is feminine in some areas (such as Spain), masculine in others (such as Mexico).

el reuma — rheumatism

sartén — frying pan — The word is masculine in Spain, feminine in much of Latin America.

la testuz — forehead of an animal

la tilde — tilde, accent mark

el tizne — soot, stain

el tortícolis — stiff neck

la treponema — type of bacteria — Like some other words of limited medical usage, this word is feminine according to dictionaries but usually masculine in actual use.

el trípode — tripod

la/el vodka — vodka

la/el web — web page, web site, World Wide Web — This word may have entered the language as a shorter form of la página web (web page), or it may be feminine because red (another word for the Web, or a computer network in general) is feminine.

el yoga — yoga — Dictionaries list the word as masculine, but the ending has led to some feminine usage.

Key Takeaways

  • A few dozen Spanish nouns are of ambiguous gender, meaning they can be either masculine or feminine without any difference in meaning.
  • The nouns of ambiguous gender are distinguished from nouns of variable gender, whose genders vary with meaning or whether the noun refers to a male or female.
  • A disproportionate number of the gender-ambiguous nouns are words with primarily scientific, technical, or medical usage.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Nouns That Are Sometimes Masculine, Sometimes Feminine." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Spanish Nouns That Are Sometimes Masculine, Sometimes Feminine. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Nouns That Are Sometimes Masculine, Sometimes Feminine." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).