This ingenious gender mnemonic comes from Chapter 4 of Fluent Forever, a great book by Gabriel Wyner on how to work with your brain rather than against it when it comes to foreign language acquisition. Grammatical gender is one of the first challenges that native English speakers face when we try to tackle a foreign language.
Grammatical gender is a gender associated with a noun For example, in Spanish, a book is masculine and a table is feminine. Although it may seem odd to us as English speakers, the concept of grammatical gender is quite common. German, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian all have grammatical gender, in addition to many more languages. While it may at first seem unnecessary and confusing, it will eventually become second nature as you learn the language.
On a side note, I’ve learned different languages with different genders for the same noun and I rarely get them confused. Let’s take the word “milk” for example… In French, milk is masculine – le lait but in German, it’s feminine – die Milch and in Latin, it’s neuter – hoc lac. It’s all part of the song for that language; don’t stress out about it, and it will come naturally as you become more familiar with the language.
So, without further ado…
Here’s the brilliant gender mnemonic:
Let’s say that masculine things explode, and feminine things burn. Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine a big, muscular man exploding. Go ahead and make it as gruesome as you can imagine – think about the smell of firecrackers and little gooey bits from the explosion. Things that revolt us, or provoke any kind of strong emotional response, stay in our memory more easily. Now, picture a beautiful woman, meditating nude in the middle of a bonfire, radiating heat and shining brightly. Imagine feeling the searing heat of the fire on your skin and hearing the fire crackle.
Hopefully this fixates masculine things as exploding and feminine things as burning. The next step is to take one of our foreign words – let’s use the Spanish el libro – a masculine book. Picture the book exploding with a loud bang. Maybe you see the cover swell up, stretch, and then burst, sending little bits of pages and binding flying up into the air. Smell that exploded firecracker smell and imagine the noise it would make as it popped.
Next, imagine the Spanish word for table – la mesa – which is feminine. Picture your table, maybe in a fancy dining room, and the table is on fire. The rest of the room is untouched, but the table is burning. Flames wrap around it and you smell burning wood and varnish. The surface bubbles up as smoke pours from the top of the table.
You don’t have to use this gender mnemonic for every single word, but it’s helpful for some of the exceptions. Usually, Spanish words ending in -o are masculine and words ending in -a are feminine. There are other patterns you can follow here. But the mnemonic is a great method for problem words, such as la moto (which is an exception because it’s short for la motocicleta). Just picture a motorcycle on fire, and smell the burning rubber of the tires and flames wrapping around the engine.
Now, quick – whats the gender of “book” in Spanish? How about “table”? It’s much easier to recall grammatical gender when it’s associated with a powerful visualization.