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¡Ask a Mexican! Game of the Name

Dear Mexican: How do Mexicans get such ridiculous nicknames from seemingly normal names? For instance, José becomes Chepe, Eduardo is Lalo, Gabriel becomes Gabi, and Guillermo devolves into Memo.

—It’s Marcela, Not Chela

I want to know why Mexicans have such incongruous nicknames. Granted, there are some English nicknames that seem like a stretch of logic — Jack for John and Peg for Margaret — but there are none so incompatible as Pepe for José, Pancho for Francisco, or Chucho (or Chuy) for Jesus.

—La China Curiosa?Who’s Really Korean

Dear Wabette and Chinita: The definitive study on this quirk is Viola Waterhouse’s “Mexican Spanish Nicknames,” included in the 1981 anthology Linguistics Across Continents: Studies in Honor of Richard S. Pittman. Unfortunately, the ethnolinguist devotes most of her article to including as many seemingly wacky Mexican apodos as possible (some of the better ones mentioned are Goyo for Gregorio, Licha for Alicia, Nacho for Ignacio and Cuco for Refugio), instead of theorizing why Mexican Spanish is prone to such a mangled morphology. Waterhouse does identify one phenomenon that factors into many of the name changes: palatalization, when speakers pronounce nonpalatal consonants as palatals — for example, the transformation of “s” into a “ch” sound when Salvador becomes Chava. Other phonetic laws not mentioned by Waterhouse that influence Mexican Spanish nicknames include apocope (the dropping of a word’s last letters or syllables — Caro for Carolina), aphaeresis (when a word loses syllables or letters at its beginning — Mando for Armando) and syncopation, when a word contracts by shedding sounds — that’s how Roberto becomes Beto.

But the question remains: Why the dropping of sounds and letters in Mexican Spanish nicknames? This Mexican’s take: Most nicknames derived from proper nombres are shortened versions of the original. Mexicans advance this process by employing the abovementioned tricks. Such trends occur in languages that are evolving into newer, bolder tongues. So enjoy your pussy Billys from William and Cathys from Catherine, gabachos: Mexicans will take the linguistic wonder that creates Lencho from Lorenzo any day.


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