In an earlier post I wrote about two of my favorite Spanish words: esdrújulo and azulejo. I love esdrújulo because it reminds me of my academic research on Spanish stress and because of its role in an amusing family anecdote. I love azulejo because it starred in one of my happiest Spanish memories, when my high school Spanish came flooding back to me in Madrid after a few years off to learn French.
I also have a least favorite Spanish word: víctima, which means victim. My problem with the word is that it’s always feminine. A woman is una víctima and a man is una víctima, too. This really bothers me as a woman. Why should all victims be feminine?
As a linguist, I have more perspective. Víctima is feminine by historical accident, not by misogynist design: it comes from the feminine Latin noun victima, meaning a person or animal killed as a sacrifice. Nor is it the only Spanish noun whose gender is unaffected by that of the person it refers to. Bebé, ángel, and personaje are always masculine, and the word persona itself is always feminine. (So is gente, though it doesn’t refer to an individual person.) This is a small group of words, but all well-established in the language.
Moreover, I know that there’s nothing intrinsic about noun gender, once we get beyond words like madre and padre. There’s nothing masculine about a libro and estante (book and bookshelf), or feminine about a mesa and silla (table and chair). For that matter, Spanish words referring to many aspects of the female experience are masculine, including embarazo and parto (pregnancy and childbirth), útero (obvious), and pecho (breast). This is the kind of mismatch that inspires beginning Spanish students to change el vestido “the dress” to la vestida, always a chuckle-worthy mistake. I’m sure we could come up with a similar list of feminine vocabulary related to the male experience.
Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly the case, with the few exceptions mentioned above, that Spanish words for people “swing” either masculine or feminine, depending on whom they refer to. These include several other nouns that, like víctima, end in -a, like dentista, turista, and atleta. Thus Rafael Nadal es un atleta espléndido (masc.) and Arantxa Arantxa Sánchez Vicari is una atleta espléndida (fem.) “People” nouns ending in -e swing as well: thus el or la agente, estudiante, cantante, and so on Most nouns that apply to people, of course, have distinct masculine and feminine forms, like profesor and profesora or médico and médica.
Even a criminal can be un or una!!!
According to the Collins dictionary, though not the Real Academia, there’s been some progress toward gender flexibility in the baby department. Collins defines bebé as either masculine and feminine, and reports a specifically feminine variant beba (no accent) in Argentina. With this example as an inspiration, and in the spirit of feminist linguistic revolt, I hereby resolve to use un víctima in my own Spanish when referring to a male victim. Won’t you join me?
When I studied at UT Austin, I learned that nouns ending in -pa, -ta, and -ma all came into Spanish from Greek, with masculine articles from that language. Don’t have time now to look for a cite to prove it, but that is what some professor or other lectured!
Could you (and would you?) say “Los communists” when referring to a bunch of communists of mixed gender?
Well, you would say los comunistas, which is probably what you meant.