Ask a 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
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" and 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?
I sent you a question months ago, but you still haven't answered it. I knew you'd be too much of a pussy to answer. Pussy!
—The Great Gabacho
The Mexican gets e-mail similar to the one above almost every week, each hurling varying degrees of insults against my manhood, mexicanidad and mother. Sorry, putos: No slurs will convince me to answer your questions faster. Unless your pregunta is especially sexy—or if you're an illegal immigrant—you have to wait your turn in line. And what a line it is: In the past year, Ask a Mexican!, like its countrymen, has spread beyond SanTana and across los Estados Unidos—it now runs in 18 papers big (Qué onda, Seattle Weekly!) and small (gracias, Macon, Georgia's The Eleventh Hour!) and has a weekly circulation of more than 1 million. The questions keep coming as a result and won't stop: I have so many questions in queue that if I never received another one, this column could continue uninterrupted for six years.
And the best is yet to come. Scribner (home of such literary madmen as Chuck Klosterman, Stephen King and F. Scott Fitzgerald) will publish the Mexican in book form on May 1, 2007. I promise to visit every city that carries this column this summer so I can treat ustedes to tequila, answer your questions and dodge your chingazos. Gracias to all of you readers—gabachos, chinitos, wabs, negritos, jotos, racists and Guatemalans alike—for making this column as spicy as it is.
On that note, and in the spirit of the holidays, I leave you with a Christmas gift: a picture that says more about Mexican culture than this humble wab ever can. Feliz Navidad!
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