I drank a lot of coffee when I was recently in Spain, partly because of jet lag and partly because the coffee was so good. As in the U.S., it was always served with a small paper container of sugar. Who ever reads these containers? I do — when I’m in Spain — and was rewarded with a linguistic gem: one sugar packet I opened was labeled azucar morena (see picture). This was truly surprising, not because of the missing accent mark on azúcar, but because morena is a feminine adjective, and azúcar is masculine.
Or is it?
Although I had learned azúcar as a masculine noun, and had always seen it treated as such, It turns out that azúcar is one of a handful of Spanish nouns that are ambiguous in gender, meaning that either morena or moreno is legitimate. You can see this for yourself on wordreference.com or in the Real Academia Española dictionary.
I was familiar with this phenomenon from the examples of radio, esperma ‘sperm’, and reúma ‘rheumatism’. The latter two were borrowed from Greek as feminines because of their final -a, but have drifted toward masculine usage because the -ma masculine, most often seen in words of Greek origin, is associated with intellectual words such as tema, poema, and apotegma.
In its Nueva gramática de la lengua española, the Real Academia points out that words of ambiguous gender are relatively rare. Besides azúcar, they list:
- mar ‘sea’ (I believe that the feminine usage is confined to set expressions like pelillos a la mar ‘let bygones be bygones’)
- agravante ‘aggravating circumstance’
- armazón ‘shell, frame’ (as of a building)
- azumbre ‘liquid measure, corresponding to 2 liters’
- interrogante ‘question’
- maratón ‘marathon’
- prez ‘honor’
- pringue ‘grease, drippings’
- ánade ‘duck’
Now that I’ve written this post, I can finally throw out the sugar packets I brought home from Spain: a sweet reminder (jajaja) of how travel can open up new linguistic horizons.