The previous lesson covered the rules for gendering French nouns and some of the notable exceptions to those rules. However, some French nouns can take either gender. These nouns have different meanings depending on whether they are preceded by a masculine or a feminine article. What makes dual gender nouns confusing for non-native French speakers is that many of these nouns have similar, but not identical, meanings between genders. In addition, some dual gender nouns have additional meanings in one gender that the other does not share.
For example, the masculine un aide means a “male assistant,” but the feminine une aide means both “female assistant” and “help or assistance” in general. Un aller is a “one-way trip,” but une allée translates to an “avenue, path, or aisle.” Le capital means “capital or money,” but la capital means a “capital city or capital letter.” Le casse can mean a “break-in or robber,” but la casse is equivalent to “breakages or damage.” Occasionally the differences between genders can be incredibly subtle. One example is le/la diesel. The masculine means diesel fuel but the feminine means a diesel automobile.
In other instances a dual gender French noun can be either a general noun or a similarly spelled proper noun depending on the article used. Le champagne translates to what a native English speaker would probably expect: the alcoholic beverage. La Champagne, on the other hand, refers specifically to the Champagne region of France. In other cases, one of the noun genders can have an additional meaning depending on whether or not it is capitalized. Le chine means “china tableware or rice paper,” la chine means “second hand,” and la Chine means the country of China. Notice that the place names in both of these examples are feminine. This conforms with the rule from the last lesson that country and region names ending in –e usually take a feminine article.
Sometimes the two genders are spelled in a slightly different way (as with un aller and une allée) or take different accents. Un icone is a computer icon, and une icône is a cultural icon (such as a work of art or a celebrity). There are also instances where the masculine and feminine nouns are spelled differently, but pronounced identically. Le krach (stock market crash) and la craque (a familiar term for a major lie) would be easy to tell apart without their articles in print but considerably less so when spoken. Other dual gender nouns translate to different meanings of the same English word. Le barde is a poet, but la barde is a horse’s armor or the fat wrapped around meat.
Of course, many French dual gender nouns do have completely different meanings. While these are probably the easiest for non-native speakers to keep track of, using the wrong gender can sometimes have unfortunate implications. This can be an easy mistake to make when one of the genders of a word is an apocope (an abridged form) of a longer single gender word. One of the more extreme examples is mari. Le Mari means “husband,” a fairly innocuous and everyday word. La mari, on the other hand, is an apocope of la marijuana. A less severe example, which nevertheless could still be confusing, is pub. Le pub means a “bar,” while la pub is an apocope of publicité, the French word for “advertising.”