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Dear Mexican: I’m a Spanish-language student struggling with tenses and the gender of nouns. The other day, some friends and I were discussing street slang and the word verga (penis) came up (no pun intended). It occurred to me that the definitive symbol of masculinity ends in the feminine “a.” What’s up with that?

—Dazed and (Gender) Confused

Dear Gabacho: I feel your pain, Dazed. Learning a new language is difficult, especially when it comes to grammar — I still don’t get the difference between the comparatives “like” and “such as,” and my parents smuggled me into this country decades ago. You didn’t indicate any problems with tenses, although Spanish is infamous for its multiple possibilities (especially that pinche pluperfect). On the other mano, grammatical gender in Spanish is relatively straightforward — nouns that end in “a” tend to be feminine and are denoted with the article la, while those ending in “o” are masculine and use the article el. That’s the case with verga, as you correctly note. So how did this most macho of words get emasculated? Simple: Verga actually means “rod,” and its etymological origins are in the Latin virga, which also had the same formal and colloquial definitions as verga. The Romans classified virga as feminine for reasons known only to them (read: they were all gay), and the Romance languages inherited this syntax sin from them (the French verge, which also means “rod,” is feminine). Perhaps it’s all a divine joke: Romance cultures are famously chauvinist, so what better way for Diós to get back at His wayward children than to wussify a much-cherished synonym for penis?

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