Italian Words that Change their Meaning based on their GENDER: Explanation + Examples

In this lesson we’ll talk about a very peculiar phenomenon of the Italian language, known as “variation between gender and meaning”. This simply means that in Italian there are some words whose meaning changes entirely according to their gender (feminine and masculine). It’s a pretty common thing, and that is why it is very important to learn how to not get confused between genders and meanings.

Italian Words Change Meaning according to GENDER

The variation between gender and meaning can happen for many reasons, which we can classify in two different ways. Let’s look at them together!

Words that end with -0/-a

First of all, there are words that end with -o in the masculine form and with -a in the feminine one,  and have two different meanings. For example:

banco (desk where students write when in class) / banca (place where you  put your money to keep it safe)
foglio (sheet of  paper where you can write on) / foglia (part of the plants)
bilancio (financial statement of your incomings and expenses) / bilancia (the tool used to weigh sth)
masso (a big stone) / massa (a large amount of sth)

Words that end with -e

There are also some words that end with -e, which can be both masculine and feminine, but still have always with a different meaning. These words, which have different meanings but are written in the same way, with the same spelling, are called HOMOGRAPHIC. Let’s see some examples:

La fine (= the final point) / il fine (= the aim)
La capitale (= the city that is the official center of government of a country) / il capitale (= large amount of money)
La fronte (= part of the face) / il fronte (= line of battle)
La volante (= police car) / il volante (= part of the car)

We can say that the examples we’ve made so far are pretty rare, unpredictable and non-systematic. However, there are some cases when the difference in meaning between the masculine and the feminine forms follows certain specific criteria and therefore is predictable. Let’s see some of them!


Names of plants and fruits

A very common case is the one of plant names (in the masculine form) and fruit names (in the feminine form):

pesco / pesca
pero / pera
arancio / arancia
melo / mela


Names of branches of education and academics

Another case is the one of the branch of education (in the feminine form) and the academics who study it (in the masculine form).

chimica / chimico
matematica / matematico
fisica / fisico


Slight difference in the meaning

There are some very peculiar cases when the difference of gender causes just a slight change in the meaning: this means that the meaning stays more or less the same, but it has a slightly different sense.

tavolo (= generic meaning of the word) / tavola (= wood board, especially the one where you eat on; it is often used to indicate a laid table)
fosso (= big crack in the ground, also natural) / fossa (= dig made in the ground)
buco (= opening, a cavity for example in the ground or on the wall / buca (= especially used in golf )


Words with a different etymology

Then, there are some cases that cannot be properly classified as “variation between gender and meaning”, because they involve words with a different etymology that by chance have developed in a similar way and are now written with the same spelling, but have different genders. Let’s see some of them:

busto (= part of the body) / busta (= paper envelope, often used for letters)
maglio (= steel cylinder used to work the iron ) / maglia (= t-shirt, or the single element of a cloth twine)
pianto (= the act of crying) / pianta (= vegetable organism, tree)

As you have seen, this topic is not very easy, because it requires a very advanced knowledge, which sometimes just a native speaker can have. However, it is still a very important topic for all those who want to learn the Italian language, because the risk of confusing the gender of the Italian nouns is very high, and it could completely change the meaning of what you’re saying!

I hope that this article was useful! If you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to check out our article on the Italian HOMOGRAPHIC words with different meanings.

Let’s see if you’ve mastered the contents of this class. Have a go at completing the exercises!

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