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Marimorena – Is it sexist to use this word in Spanish?

The origin of the expression ‘marimorena‘ is not well known. What is certain is that it arose in the mists of the late 1500s during the emergence of imperial Spain. A story places Mari Morena, a woman, at the centre of this meaningful expression, associated with scandal, trouble, fights and quarrels. I will refer to the colorful version of the story given in the 1899 publication España Moderna, Modern Spain. It intrigues me as to why the name of a woman should become so associated with those actions that are generally more attributed to men.

Cover of the publication España Moderna, año II, number 128, Madrid, 1899.

The Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary clearly states that marimorena is a colloquial feminine noun, meaning: to fight, quarrel and brawl [1].

The version of the story appearing in the 1899 publication España Moderna, Modern Spain [2] unveils significant details as to how the name of Mari Morena has transcended the centuries.

By 1579 there was a well established taberna, tavern, in Cava Baja, a street in Madrid run by Alonso de Zayas and Mari Morena, his wife.

Street sign of Cava Baja located in the centre of Madrid. Tiles by ceramist Ruiz de Luna. Courtesy of photographer Pedro Reina © Pedro Reina

Street sign of Cava Baja located in the centre of Madrid. Tiles by ceramist Ruiz de Luna. Courtesy of photographer Pedro Reina © Pedro Reina

The Cava Baja is one of the oldest streets of Madrid and by the 1600s would have been the hub for arrivals and departures, for carriers of merchandise and couriers bringing the mail to the provinces. Later, it became synonymous as the place where groups of thugs used to frequent.

In 1579, Alonso de Zayas and Mari Morena became very well known in Madrid following a high profile judicial court case which took place as a result of a quarrel that arose in their tavern. Alonso de Zayas and Mari Morena had refused to serve their finest wine, contained in cueros de vino, leather wine holders, to thirsty soldiers, because it was reserved solely for members of the Court and their more illustrious customers.

According to the chronicles of the time Mari Morena stood her ground during quarrels in her tavern better than anybody else. She was known as a barmaid ready to ‘crack heads’ to resolve any quarrels by those who did not want to pay or were drunk; and her name and manner survive to these days.

Marimorena en una taberna

Then as an extension of her name the expression se armó la marimorena meaning “it was a serious quarrel or fight”, entered the language.

Although this story tells us about a remarkable woman who knew how to fight her corner; it appears that the meaning of this expression has evolved. I agree with those who argue that this expression may perpetuate the  stereotypical view of women as being quarrelsome. Perhaps, the challenge which faces us today is to restore the original meaning of marimorena as an expression to describe a woman who stands up for herself.

September 2015

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[1] For the Real Academia Española, Spanish Royal Academy’s definition of marimorena, please click here.

[2] España Moderna, Modern Spain, año II, número 128, page 115, agosto de 1899, Madrid. To access the pdf file of this publication, please click here.

Are There Ways of Subverting Certain Generic Uses of the Spanish Language?

I see language students as adventurous 21st Century astronauts in a yet unwritten novel, exploring a new world with their own eyes. They are the new Adams and Eves in a new Paradise, eager to eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge and re-naming everything they discover. (Learning Spanish as a Second Language Must be FUN, February 2014.)

People Talking, courtesy of Cartoon People Talking©Cartoon People Talking

People Talking, courtesy of Cartoon People Talking. ©Cartoon People Talking.

With the statement above I wanted you to realise that language is not a dry fossilised set of unchanging signs, sounds and symbols, but a vibrant living aspect of communication that could and should reflect the world in which we live.

I would follow the opening metaphor with an interesting fact that changed our views of existence: in 1960, the well known English theoretical physicist and cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking expanded Einstein’s theory of relativity to the point whereby the Universe began with a singularity. This fundamentally changed our understanding of existence and added to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, thus demonstrating the impact that a student can have upon the subject they are studying.

Language students and language tutors cannot help but contribute to the transformation of the language they are learning or teaching. Cultural attitudes now are dramatically different from past times. As a student of Spanish, you have the opportunity to challenge the generic norms and perceived sexist aspects of Spanish usage on a ongoing basis.

I accept we may be on contentious territory here – but language has always changed and evolved to support and define our view of the world and each other. Below are some examples of how we can improve our speaking in a way that promotes respect and equality:

Avoiding the use of words like “hombres” or other similar words in the generic sense, as the subject of the phrase, will contribute to the promotion of a more inclusive way of expressing ourselves.
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    Generic                            Generic +  

    los niños                              la niñez                         (the children)

    los vecinos                         el vecindario                (the neighbours)

    los jóvenes                         la juventud                   (the youth)

    los adolescentes               la adolescencia           (the adolescents)

    el hombre (the men)         la humanidad             (the human beings)


Similarly with titles and professions use those terms that are neutral rather than the generic (masculine).
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      Generic                          Generic +

       los jefes                         la jefatura              (the bosses)
       los directores                 la dirección          (the directors)

In some cases the female subject appears as an appendix, complimenting or being a possession of the male


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    Los nativos trabajan la tierra con la ayuda de sus esposas e hijos.  (The natives work the land with the help of their wives and children.)


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   La población nativa trabaja la tierra colectivamente.(The native population work the land collectively.)



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 Los gitanos desmontaron sus carpas y se mudaron junto con sus mujeres al pueblo vecino. (The Gypsies dismantled their tents and moved with their wives to the neighbouring   village).


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   Los gitanos y las gitanas desmontaron sus carpas y se mudaron al pueblo vecino. (The Gypsies dismantled their tents and moved to the neighbouring village.)

In the second paragraph, highlighted with a green thumb up, we have the chance to use an egalitarian and inclusive language.

Change the generic term “hombre” or “los hombres”, when they refer to human kind into a more inclusive term

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 17.53.43  Los hombres han preferido establecer asentamientos donde hay agua. 

(Men have preferred to establish settlements where there is water.)


thumb up La humanidad ha preferido establecer asentamientos donde había agua.

(Human beings have preferred to establish settlements where there was water.)


It is pertinent to mention both genders when referring to a mixed group as follows

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   Generic                          Generic +

   los abogados                    las abogadas y los abogados      (lawyers [female and male])

   los ministros                    las ministras y los ministros      (female and male ministers)

• Professions

Be modern, reflect the social changes using the feminine when naming professions or occupations. The fact that it may sound odd to our ears because it was not used in the recent past does not matter. We will all get familiar with them in time.

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los ingenieros            las ingenieras y los ingenieros       (engineers female and male)

los mecánicos            las mecánicas y los mecánicos       (mechanics female and male)

los carpinteros          las carpinteras y los carpinteros    (carpenter female and male)

How the language teaching institutions favour an andocentric orientated education is perhaps a wider subject that deserves a blog in itself. A sample of this is the 1970’s Spanish language third year secondary school book: Castellano, by Lacau Rosetti and published by Editorial Kapelusz. The book contains hundreds of extracts from Spanish literature and teaches how to analyse them. Only a dozen of them are pieces from women writers. Generations that are now in the position of influencing society have been educated with books like this one.

Cover of a 1970’s Spanish language third year secondary school book: Castellano, by Lacau Rosetti and published by Editorial Kapelusz.

Cover of a 1970’s Spanish language third year secondary school book: Castellano, by Lacau Rosetti and published by Editorial Kapelusz.

In the article entitled Vertigo I concluded with a couple of questions: Is the prevalence of masculine gender in Spanish a symptom of sexism in the language? Is the language a reflection of the culture or viceversa? Throughout my last two entries, I have attempted to answer these. Thus, this is my humble contribution: being a single star in a vast universe of opinion on this issue.

April 2015

This is a follow up article to: Finding creative and positive ways to transform a language, published 1 April 2015.

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