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One of the most curious phenomena of the Spanish language – and one that causes plenty of headaches for its students – is that our words have genders. As we know, masculine words tend to end in –o, and feminine words in –a (although there are plenty of exceptions to this rule!). Many times, the masculine or feminine character of a word is reflected by the actual gender of the person or animal; they are words that are within the same semantic category. For example chico vs. chica (boy vs. girl), toro vs. vaca (bull vs. cow) or caballo vs. yegua (horse vs. mare). However, there is another phenomenon regarding the variation of gender between words that isn't related to the masculine or feminine quality of the object. In fact, in changing the gender of the word, it actually takes on a completely different meaning. We'll give you some examples:
1. Caballo vs. caballa: yes, caballa does exist but, contrary to what you might think, it's not a female horse. A caballa is a very popular type of fish in Spain (“mackerel”).
2. Trapo vs. trapa: a trapo is a piece of fabric used for cleaning purposes (“rag”), while a trapa is a system of rigs and holds used in sailing.
3. Suelo vs. suela: the suelo is the ground or the floor, while the suela is the bottom, or sole, of a shoe.
4. Bola vs. bolo: a bola can be anything that has a spherical shape, like a ball or a scoop of ice cream, yet a bolo is what we knock down during a game of bowling (“bowling pin”)! Bolo can be easily confused with the ball used to play soccer, which is called a balón.
5. Río vs. ría: this pair is a bit more complicated. While a río is a wide current that flows into the sea or ocean (“river”), a ría is the body of water where the river meets the sea (“estuary”). For example, in Spain the rías gallegas are very famous, and beautiful.
6. Huerto vs. huerta: this one is tricky, even for native Spanish speakers. A huerto is a small and enclosed area of crops, like a garden; in contrast, a huerta refers to a much larger area, such as an orchard or a field. It's often the case that a huerta is comprised of various small huertos.
7. Velo vs. vela: a velo is an article of light fabric used to cover the head or face (“veil”), but a vela can be a candle or the sail of a sailboat.
8. Higo vs. higa: higo is the tasty fruit of a fig tree (“fig”). Higa is something quite different: it can be an amulet in the shape of a closed fist, often given as gifts to children, or even an offensive hand gesture.
9. Brazo vs. braza: we all know that the brazo is the arm; a braza, however, is a measure of length used for water depth (the equivalent of about 6 feet), known as a fathom.
10. Bando vs. banda: while a bando is any type of proclamation or public announcement, a banda can have various meanings such as: a group of people (including, yes, a musical band), a type of belt or sash, or one of the longer sides of a sports field.
There you have it, more proof of how curious Spanish vocabulary can be. There are always surprises and new meanings to be discovered! By the way, do you know of any other examples?