“Las formas femeninas suelen ser más grandes.”
Well, that may not be the exact phrase my colleague used, but it was along those lines, and it wasn’t meant to insult women in anyway. We were discussing a translation for the Mexican word cenote and he was trying to explain what it meant. Not a pozo (a well), but a poza. But what was a poza? According to the RAE, it’s a:
Charca o concavidad en que hay agua detenida.
Note that the definition uses the word charca, not charco. Again, two similar forms; so what’s the difference?
There are times when charco translates as ‘puddle’, and the RAE defines it as:
Agua, u otro líquido, detenida en un hoyo o cavidad de la tierra o del piso.
As for charca, that’s defined as:
Depósito algo considerable de agua, detenida en el terreno, natural o artificialmente
Note the phrase “algo considerable” – it’s a “not inconsiderable deposit of water”.
So a charco is a pool of water; a charca is a big pool of water. A pozo is a well; a poza is a big well. Un río is a river; una ría is an estuary…
But the norm that “feminine forms are bigger” doesn’t just apply to bodies of water.
When I had only recently arrived in Spain, I had great difficulty remembering that my handbag was un bolso but that a shopping bag is una bolsa; this meant I would often demand a shop assistant’s handbag when I really wanted a plastic carrier. (Eventually one market stallholder got fed up and gave me her handbag each time I got it wrong, which finally got the point through to me.) But there are many other pairs that I have been desperately trying to learn to distinguish by rote. Only last year I was bemoaning the complications of ramo and rama.
I remember the flash of illumination when a teacher told me “los problemas son siempre masculinas” – because problema ends in “a” it’s tempting – but wrong – to say una problema. Suddenly, though, he’d put it in a way that I could easily remember. And now, today, I have a new rule of thumb: female forms are bigger. It may not be as intuitive as knowing that problems are male, but I think it will still be useful.