If you have a name considered by some to be “too ethnic” or difficult to pronounce or remember, you’ve probably been asked if you have a nickname. And while most of us do have nicknames, those nicknames are personal and belong to a specific group of people. Most of our nicknames connect us to people we are close to -- family, friends, classmates, a few co-workers. Those are positive nicknames.
The dark side of nicknames is their use to demean and bully us. I have often believed that one of Donald Trump’s super-powers is nicknaming people and this gives him control over prominent people in his own party. They fear him for many reasons, but one of them, I think, is the strong possibility that he will give them a nickname that ridicules them. One wonders what Mr. Magoo (former AG Jefferson Beauregard Sessions) Lyin’ Ted (Ted Cruz) or Little Marco (Marco Rubio) think about their Trump-bestowed monikers. And we immediately know which political rivals he references by the disrespectful nicknames he's given them: Pocahontas, Sleepy Joe, Crooked Hilary. Trump has mastered the dark art of creating pejorative nicknames that stick, while seemingly nothing sticks to him. Definitely a Teflon Don, although I think he will eventually get his just deserts.
In Episode 10 of my Stairwell Teatro, I have the pleasure of including clips of a zoom conversation with a writer I very much admire, Gustavo Arellano, who is now at the Los Angeles Times.
Gustavo wrote the syndicated column, Ask A Mexican, written during his long tenure at the Orange County Weekly. It is through this column (eventually compiled into this book) that I first learned of Gustavo’s take on Mexican nicknames. The broad range of questions and responses on Ask A Mexican were both LOL funny and a window to commonly held prejudices and stereotypes about Mejicanos and Mexican Americans.
Here are two questions on topic:
Dear Wabette and Chinita: The definitive study on this quirk remains 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 in 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 so many of these name changes: palatalization, in which 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 apocopation (the dropping of a word’s last letters of 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 above mentioned 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 is creating Lencho from Lorenzo any day.”
Gotta love it all -- erudition, humor, and jabs dished all around. Get yourself a copy of Ask A Mexican, and I guarantee you’ll have many hours of headshaking, belly laughs, and complete outrage at both the questions and his answers. Definitivamente, vale la pena.
Gustavo is smart, funny, irreverent, and insightful in covering each and every topic, and his work at the LA Times this past year has been so so good. Check out his two recent podcasts from the LA Times. The Battle of 187 which tells the story of Prop 187 California’s anti-immigrant initiative on its 25th Anniversary. Prop 187 provided the playbook for the current wave of immigrant-bashing we are experiencing at the national level). The other podcast is Coronavirus in CA: Stories from the Frontlines. Give them a listen.
You can subscribe to Gustavo Arellano’s weekly newsletter by visiting his website, click here.
I look forward to reading his Saturday missives knowing I’ll be informed, inspired, and amused by his observations and reflections on our shared fears and joys, fruit trees, the KKK, illness and death, paying it forward, gratitude, food, music, y mucho mucho mas. Just google his name and you’ll find articles he’s written in publications from the OC Weekly to the New Yorker, and countless radio and television appearances including the Colbert Report and many others. I enjoyed watching his conversation with Will Hearst at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club (which unfortunately I was not able to attend). Click here to watch.
And follow him on:
twitter - @Gustavo Arellano con su pluma en su mano
Facebook - GustavoArellanoWriter
Instagram –@Gustavo_Arellano where you can ask him random questions
A final nickname story which didn’t make it into the Stairwell Episode was shared with me decades ago by my friend, also a celebrated writer, the late Jose Antonio Burciaga, author of various books including Weedee Peepo (his father’s pronunciation of the preamble of US Constitution which his dad learned studying for his citizenship exam).
“My friend in El Paso is nicknamed Dos XX like the beer."
“Really? How did he get that nickname?”
“Pues, he has two ex-wives y por eso we call him Dos XX.”
I absolutely love the playfulness of language; and for me knowing and speaking Spanish has been an endless source of delight, joy, and pride, and for that, I am grateful to my parents Claudio and Esperanza.
I discovered an unexpected cat-me-oh appearance on my Stairwell Episode after I recorded it. Our cat, Sushi 2.0, was lying right behind me and occasionally you can get a glimpse of her. To my long-time friends, NO, this is not the same beloved Sushi from the 80s and 90, thus the addition of 2.0 to her name. We loved the original Sushi so much that when we got another sleek and elegant black cat, we could not think of a different name.
As you know COVID-19 is all around us. Please do your part to keep yourself, your family, and your community safe. First and foremost wash your hands often and always carry hand sanitizer with you and apply liberally, wear a mask properly (it must cover your nose, por favor), keep a 6’ distance (minimum) from anyone not in your household (or pod if you have included a small circle of people beyond your immediate household).
Have a topic related to names you’d like me to address in an upcoming Teatro Episode and blog, give me a holler at firstname.lastname@example.org . . . and If you enjoy my Stairwell Teatro or this blog, and aren’t yet a subscriber, please join my subscription list.