I'm referring to words like "el tema" or "el lema". Most words ending in "a" are feminine.

This is actually the opposite of a similar question,

¿Por qué es la palabra «mano» femenina?


Me refiero a palabras como "el tema" o "el lema". La mayoría de las palabras que acaban en "a" son femeninas.

Esto es, de hecho, lo opuesto a una pregunta similar,

¿Por qué es la palabra «mano» femenina?


There is a large group of words that Spanish inherits from Greek which end in "ma" and, following their Greek roots, are masculine. They may even be the majority of words that end in "a" but are masculine.

  • el clima
  • el programa
  • el sistema
  • el lema
  • el tema
  • el problema
  • el idioma
  • el drama

Mostly they're the sorts of words that English might take from Greek. They're scientific or philosophical or technical terms.

Certainly there are other words that are masculine and end in "a". El tequila doesn't come from Greek! But this covers a big class.

Note: Nouns ending in -μα in the nominative and -ματος in the genitive of the third declension are neuter in Greek. That includes κλίμα (clima) and σύστημα (sistema) and πρόγραμμα (programa) and all the rest I know. Of course, Spanish does not have a neuter gender.

In Latin, these words continue to be third declension neuter. Spanish «Sistema» is systēma, systēmatis; «clima» is clima, climatis.

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  • If I had to guess, I would think that "el tequila" is an indigenous word that the Spaniards appended gender to and moved on with their lives. Well, after passing around the salt and lime, of course. – Aarthi Nov 18 '11 at 4:21
  • For what it's worth, all these words are spelled the exact same way in Portuguese. And they are also all masculine. – Orion Nov 18 '11 at 7:32
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    Another non-greek example: "el vodka". Always confuses me, because it's feminine in Slavic languages. – vartec Nov 18 '11 at 10:26
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    @hippietrail -- yes, they were masculine in Latin and Greek, too. – Kef Schecter Nov 23 '11 at 4:20
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    @Brian: It's even more accurate to say that When Latin evolved into Spanish it merged the neuter gender into the masculine. Most if not all of these Greek words were borrowed when Spanish was still Latin. – hippietrail Nov 23 '11 at 8:38

Vodka and tequila are masculine in Spanish because licor is masculine. (Same for e.g. rioja wine (vino).

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