«El mar» or «la mar»?

The sea. Only the sea!
Father, why did you bring me
to the city?

Rafael Alberti, Marinero en Tierra (1924)

In this mini-lesson we explain the use of the masculine and feminine forms of «mar (sea), because they are not used in the same way and are not interchangeable. We also explain the importance of the sea in the Spanish language and culture. In just a few minutes you’ll learn words and colloquial expressions related to the sea. Click below to download the complete transcript.

The word mar can be both masculine and feminine in Spanish.

This is because it comes from the Latin word mare, which was neither masculine nor feminine but neuter. As Spanish evolved, the word was preserved in two forms: masculine and feminine. However, the two forms are used differently.

Masculino y Femenino

  • The plural form is almost always masculine: los mares.
  • The masculine form is also used to name the seas: el mar Caribe, el mar Mediterráneo. Note that the word is not capitalised in Spanish when naming a specific sea.
  • People who make a living with the sea, such as fishers or sailors, tend to use the feminine form: for example, hacerse a la mar (to set sail) or vivir de la mar (to make a living from the sea).
  • We also use the feminine form when describing the state of the sea: for example, mar gruesa (rough sea/s), mar rizada (choppy sea) and mar llana (calm sea).
  • The feminine form is also preferred in literary contexts because it has a more emotional connotation and is more expressive.

Rafael Alberti

You can see that Rafael Alberti uses both genders in his poem: el mar of the city-dweller and la mar of the sailor.

Of course, it’s not surprising that the sea is important in Spanish culture. Spain has about 8,000 kilometres of coastline distributed among the peninsula, the Balearic islands, the Canaries, and Melilla and Ceuta. This is why fish and seafood are important in Spanish gastronomy.

Mar de dudas

  • Estar hecho/a un mar de dudas: to be filled with doubt
    For example: Estoy hecho un mar de dudas, no sé si debería aceptar el nuevo trabajo o no.
  • Estar hecho/a un mar de lágrimas

  • Estar hecho/a un mar de lágrimas: to be in floods of tears
    For example: Marta no ha aprobado el examen de conducir hoy, está hecha un mar de lágrimas.
  • La mar de

  • La mar de: much, a lot (indicating intensity or quantity)
    For example:
    Aquí estamos la mar de bien, en una casa grande con jardín y piscina.
    Tu hijo es la mar de guapo, seguro que tiene mucho éxito con las chicas.
  • We also have many other colloquial expressions related to the sea:

    • ¡Me cago en la mar!: literally, “I shit in the sea!”; this is an expression of annoyance or frustration. You may also hear ¡Me cachis en la mar!, which is a milder form of the same expression. Me cago en la mar is vulgar, but not really strong. Nobody thinks about its literal meaning, and it is used as widely as joder. We’ll discuss this word another time!
      For example: No me lo puedo creer, acabo de perder mis llaves del coche, ¡me cago en la mar!
    • Pelillos a la mar: this expression is used to set aside an argument or disagreement, like “Let bygones be bygones” or “Let’s forget our differences”.
      For example: Bueno, pelillos a la mar, vamos a olvidarnos de todo, no vamos a dejar de ser amigos por una discusión sin importancia.
    • Ultramar: a place far away on the other side of the sea or ocean.
      For example: El barco que ha llegado a Galicia trae mercancía de ultramar, son productos de Brasil. You may also hear una tienda de ultramarinos, which is a grocery store, because many of the products are from overseas.
      For example: He comprado estas latas de atún en la tienda de ultramarinos que han abierto nueva, son muy baratas.

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