Cajones!

No, it’s not rude – even in Spanish – though it is but one small vowel away.  In fact, it is the Spanish for ‘drawers’ – not the undergarments but those items which tend to come in chests (though now I read that back, it does look quite rude).

However, it is also the name given to a Peruvian drum – well, cajón is – and it is these drums or cajones which I saw being played last night.

Talking of Spanish, and the rather extreme changes in meaning the replacement of an ‘o’ with an ‘a’ can occasion, reminds me of an incident which occurred when I was taking Spanish lessons for business.  As rather lazy comedy has taught us, many Spanish words end in either ‘o’ or ‘a’ – and as a rule of thumb, those that end with the vowel associated with ‘orses are usually feminine (unless from a Greek source word, e.g. el estratagema) and those linked to the wings of a dove (with apologies to Felix Mendelssohn) are commonly masculine.

As the native speaker of a language which does not assign gender to most of its nouns, I sometimes find I know the word (or think I do) but am uncertain as to its gender. As a mathematician, I like to keep things consistent and so tend to match the final vowel with the article when in doubt.  I also try and apply logic to the choice of gender, where the selection seems obvious.  On one occasion, this perfectly reasonable approach caused my Spanish lesson to come to rather an abrupt end.

The Spanish stem ‘poll’ can form two words, the masculine el pollo and the feminine la polla.  Both have a certain relation to the English word chicken – one is the word for chicken (presumably from the same Latinate source as our word ‘poultry’) and the other a word for a part of the male anatomy which is not normally linked to the words au vin (though homophonous with a word that is).  I, not unnaturally, assumed the male member to be masculine and that the hen-meat was feminine.  I learned this was an incorrect assumption when my description of a delicious meal of chicken wrapped in bacon (this is long before my eschewing of mammalian flesh) caused my female Spanish teacher to collapse with the giggles – a position from which she did not rapidly recover.  I can only assume I was the first of her students to make this, entirely logical, error – however, I do feel she could have handled my linguistic faux-pas in a slightly more sensitive manner.

I am now much more cautious about guessing the gender of any Spanish words.  Given that the choice is so illogical in such an apparently clear-cut case, I have taken to heart the words of Cicero about discretion being the better part of valour.

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