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What's in a Mexican Nickname?

Cholula, Puebla
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by Pat Hall

Many years ago, when I lived in Cholula, Puebla, I had a wonderful landlord whose name was Francisco. Those of us in Cholula who knew him called him El Capitán because that was his title in the Mexican army. But when friends and family came to visit him, they never called him El Capitán or Francisco. Instead, they would call him Pancho or Panchito or Paco or Paquito or Kiko or Chico or Cisco.

Not being able to restrain my curiosity, it didn't take long before I asked him what his name really was. He seemed a bit surprised I would ask such a question, and he replied his name was Francisco. "Then what are all your family and friends calling you?" I exploded. I had heard so many different names that I couldn't remember them all.

He laughed and told me those names that friends and relatives call him are all Mexican nicknames (apodos in Spanish) for Francisco.

I have since heard many nicknames in Mexico, and most of them make no sense to me. I had always thought that nicknames were short for the given name, as in Pat for Patricia. Not so in Mexico. The nickname for José is Pepe, and that nickname is certainly not any shorter than the given name. Nor is it anything vaguely resembling the given name.

Eventually I started doing research on nicknames in Mexico.

Starting with the mysterious nickname, Pepe, for José, I found that in Latin, the name José (Joseph) is always followed by the letters "P.P", standing for pater putativus, meaning the commonly accepted or so-called father of Jesus. Padre putativo in Spanish means adoptive father. Abbreviate this as PP in Spanish; give it a Spanish pronunciation (the letter "p" being pronounced as "peh"), and you get Pepe, thus giving rise to the nickname Pepe for José.

So a Mexican nickname doesn't have to be a shortened form of the original name.

I couldn't wait to start researching my landlord's name, Francisco. Here's what I found: Saint Francis founded the Franciscan order of monks and was therefore the father of the community, or pater communitatis in Latin. Paco is supposedly obtained by taking the first two letters of each word of the Latin pater communitatis.

If you relax the /k/ sound of Paco, it becomes Pacho and, mixing this with the original "n" in the full name, Francisco, gives you Pancho. This pattern is also consistent with the general observation that many nicknames in Spanish turn "f" into "p".

Adding the diminutive ending -ito, makes the name seem more affectionate or emotionally familiar, thus producing Paquito and Panchito from the original Paco and Pancho. It's interesting to note that in the change from Paco to Paquito, you need to change the letter "c" to "qu" to retain the original hard "k" sound before the "i".

Speaking about diminutives, I have to mention that I am acquainted with a father and son who have the same name, Miguel. Even though the son is an adult now and is easily twice his father's size, he is still known as Miguelito -- "little Miguel".

Aurora, a friend of mine, once told me her nickname is Bolita. Now I know that bolita is the diminutive form of bola (ball), as in a "little ball". Aurora is large and tall and so I asked her why anyone would call her a little ball. She informed me that she knows several women called Aurora and they are all called Bolita by family and friends. But she didn't know why.

I couldn't resist trying to find out about that nickname. I already knew that the name Aurora means "dawn", but how could that meaning give rise to "little ball"? After some research, I found Aurora was indeed the name of the Roman goddess of dawn. Then digging further, I found that auro, the beginning letters of Aurora, means gold in Latin. Besides little ball, another meaning of bolita is nugget. Therefore Aurora's nickname is gold nugget, a small lump or ball of gold. When I told her that her nickname is a little gold nugget, she was very happy. Now we know why people call her Bolita, whether or not they know it themselves.

Many years ago, my roommate had a boyfriend called Jesús. Coming from an English-speaking world, I had a hard time believing that anyone would name their son Jesús. Why is it that the name Jesus is used frequently in the Spanish-speaking world, but never in the English-speaking world? After I became fairly accustomed to calling him Jesús, I heard his friends calling him Chuy and Chucho. What was this? He explained that Chuy and Chucho were his nicknames.

One day I met a man whose name is Cuco. I had a difficult time saying his name because I kept confusing it with cucú, (cuckoo in English). When I would call him cucú, that would elicit laughter from him and his friends. He finally told me Cuco is a nickname for Refugio. Now I can say it correctly because I know his full name ends in an "o' and so does his nickname. But I have a hard time seeing any further connection.

When I met my first Lalo, I wondered how anyone could be called Lalo. As a foreigner, I thought he must be kidding. I asked him what his full name was, and he told me it was Eduardo. How could Lalo have a connection to Eduardo? Since then, I have met quite a few Lalos and have found that it is a very common nickname in Mexico.

I have always called a good friend of mine Alberto. But when he sends me an email, he always signs his name as Beto. He often writes "Beto Power!" I guess if you take the name Alberto, and drop the first two letters and the "r", you can come up with Beto. But I have to ask myself why?

There are lots of Betos in Mexico as Beto can also be a nickname for Roberto, Norberto, Humberto, and Heriberto, as well as for Alberto. I can see the similarity between these names in that they all end in "berto".

Alfonso becomes Poncho; Antonio becomes Toño; Dolores becomes Lola; Fernanda becomes Fer and thus María Fernanda becomes Mafer; Graciela becomes Chela; Guadalupe becomes Lupe and Lupita; Guillermo becomes Memo; Ignacio becomes Nacho; Isabel becomes Chabela; María Eugenia becomes Maru; Sergio becomes Checo; Teresa becomes Tere; Concepción becomes Concha and Conchi; María Teresa becomes Mayte.

Many abbreviated names have their origin in infantile language. Children have difficulty pronouncing people's names. So the child pronounces Ignacio with an abbreviated name like Nacho. Then the adults start using it as a permanent nickname.

One way that children create nicknames is by a process called economization. The speaker simply drops difficult sounds and sometimes whole syllables from a name. Gustavo becomes Tavo and Teresa becomes Tere. Because the consonant "r" is difficult for children, Alberto loses not only its first syllable but also the "r" to become Beto.

Another process is called palatalization. Here the speaker changes a sound into a palatal sound, produced with the tongue against the roof of the mouth or hard palate. The sound "ch", a common palatal sound, appears in many Mexican nicknames, such as Chelo and Chuy. This is because another sound difficult for toddlers to pronounce is "s". So they turn "s" into a "ch" sound.

Many nicknames result from the proper name being both economized and palatalized. In this way, Ignacio becomes Nacio and then Nacho, while Alicia becomes Licha.

During the Spanish conquest, because they didn't want the invading Spaniards to know what they were doing / saying, the Nahuas kept their nicknames, and the affection those showed, hidden. Now, with not too many conquistadores around, everybody knows these nicknames.

Shortened names with the addition of the “ch” sound is one way that Nahuatl has infiltrated the invaders' language. Vicente becomes Chente, Alicia becomes Licha and even though Memo is usually used for Guillermo, so is Chemo. In this regard, Mexican Spanish differs from Castilian Spanish largely because of its indigenous heritage.

In conclusion, I have to say that, after learning so many creative and imaginative Spanish nicknames, English nicknames seem rather boring. Nicknames in English usually have some obvious relation to the given names. For example, Kenny or Ken for Kenneth, Jenny for Jennifer, or Pat or Patty for Patricia. However, there are a few English nicknames like Jack for John and Peggy for Margaret, that, like Mexican nicknames, seem to stretch the imagination.

On a final note, I would observe that although Mexican nicknames might appear unusual, they are fairly consistent throughout the country.

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Pat Hall is a retired Canadian who has been visiting and living in San Miguel for the past 24 years. Many years ago Pat worked in the library at the Universidad de las Américas in Cholula, Puebla for three years where she also studied Spanish. In Canada she worked as a librarian, library science instructor, and language teacher (French, Spanish, German, Latin, and English as a Second Language). The last 5 years of her working life were spent as a translator, translating official documents from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish. She has recently published a book, Speak To Me: Travels and Exploits of a Language Lover, available on Amazon, about her adventures traveling and pursuing her passion for languages.

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