The Gender Jumble: A tormenta of tormento

April 27, 2011

Kate Galante

Have you ever found yourself in the embarrassing situation of asking a bewildered waiter for the cuento? Or perhaps you have tried to buy a barro de chocolate, or you have pulled into a gas station to say that you have a llanto flojo? If so, your Spanish is still floundering in the gender jumble.

I know what a problem gender can be for English speakers. The idea that every noun is, so to speak, either a boy or a girl confounds us. What’s more, there are all these vexing words that change meaning when they change gender: words like cuento (story) and cuenta (bill, account), barro (mud) and barra (bar), llanto (cry) and llanta (tire).

You must acknowledge, however, they can be handy. For example, you don’t have to learn two different words for naturally male and female items like niño and niña. Besides, it’s helpful to remember that, with few exceptions, fruit trees are masculine (el manzano, apple tree) and their fruit is feminine (la manzana, apple).

But, let’s face it: Words that are so much alike can really get in the way. I still hesitate a moment before deciding whether to use punto or punta.

The following are examples of such pairs of nouns. (To avoid further confusion, I have included only those that end in “o” or “a”). Sometimes their meanings are related; other times, not at all.

 

el acto – act (refers to both an action and a theater act)

el acta – record, certificate affidavit (note that in Spanish a singular feminine noun that begins in a stressed “a” takes el instead of la for an article, in order to avoid the collision of a’s)

 

el alto – height, elevation

el alta – discharge (of patients), entry (to the military or a profession)

 

el anillo – ring (as for a finger)

la anilla – curtain ring

 

el arco – arch

el arca – chest, ark

 

el bando – edict, proclamation

la banda – band (as in strip), troop, gang, musical band

 

el bolo – bowling pin

la bola – ball

 

el bolso – purse

la bolsa – bag, sack, pocket

 

el brazo – arm (of a person or chair)

la braza – breaststroke, fathom

 

el caño– ditch or pipe for draining water

la caña – reed, cane

 

el capo – hood (of a car)

la capa – cape, cloak, coating (of paint, etc.), layer

 

el caso – case

la casa – house

 

el codo – elbow

la coda – musical term, carpenter’s wedge

 

el copo – flake, snowflake, tuft, clot, curd

la copa – cup, goblet, wineglass

 

el coso – bullfighting arena

la cosa – thing

 

el cero – zero

la cera – wax

 

el cuadro – square, picture, painting

la cuadra – city block

 

el cubierto – table setting, silverware

la cubierta – cover, wrapping, pretext

 

el derecho – law (the institution of), right (as in human rights)

la derecha – right (as in “to turn to the right”)

 

el fallo – ruling, judgment, lapse, error

la falla – fault, defect

 

el filo – cutting edge, hunger (slang)

la fila – line (as in “to wait in line”), row

 

el labio – lip, rim 

la labia – eloquence, verbal fluency

 

el libro – book

la libra – pound (of weight)

 

el mallo – mallet, maul

la malla – mesh, netting

 

el manto – cloak, mantle

la manta – blanket, shawl, poncho, shroud

 

el marco – frame

la marca – brand, trademark, make, mark

 

el palo – pole, tree

la pala – shovel

 

el partido – party (as in a political party), game or match (as in a football game)

la partida – departure

 

el pasto – pasture, pasture grass, feed, fodder

la pasta – dough, pasta, paste

 

el pelo – hair, whisker

la pela – peeling, stripping, beating

 

el peso – weight, importance

la pesa – dumbbell, weight

 

el plato – plate

la plata – money, silver

 

el pozo – pool, well

la poza – swimming hole in a river

 

el puerto – port 

la puerta – door

 

el punto – dot, period, moment, matter, small hole, stitch 

la punta – sharpened point, tip, top, point of land

 

el rato – short time, while

la rata – rat

 

el rayo – ray, beam, thunderbolt, flash of lightening, flash of pain

la raya – stripe, line, scratch, crease, limit

 

el reino – kingdom

la reina – queen

 

el ruedo – turn, rotation, edge, border, hem

la rueda – wheel

 

el rumbo – direction, course

la rumba – rumba (the dance)

 

el suelo – land, ground, soil, territory

la suela – sole (of a shoe), tanned leather

 

el tallo – (botanical) stalk, stem, sprout, shoot 

la talla – stature, height, size (of clothing), wood carving, reward

 

el tiro – throw, shooting, shot

la tira – strip (of paper, etc.)

 

el tramo – section, stretch of land 

la trama – plot (of a story), scheme

 

el tormento – torture, torment, anguish

la tormenta – storm, turmoil

 

el velo – veil, mask

la vela – vigil, watch, night shift, sleeplessness, sail (of a boat), sailboat, candle.

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