This article is from the February
2005 The Mexico
Back to Articles List
Hispanic Apodos (Nicknames): Profession, Affection, and Physical Characteristics
by John G. Gladstein
One dictionary defines nickname as: “A descriptive name used instead or along with the real name of a person, place, or thing (“Nickname”). In the Hispanic culture, the nickname is usually given because of a person’s profession, a term of affection or because of some physical characteristic.
Nicknames are used much more in Hispanic culture than Anglo culture. Hispanic culture also puts more importance on the profession of an individual than does Anglo culture. Hispanics are proud of their profession(s), and it is more common for a son to follow in his father’s footsteps and do in adult life what the father has done. Hence, the professions of the father and mother are admired and imitated by children. Generally speaking, Hispanics tend to stick more to a profession and change careers less often than Anglos. A person who takes up a profession as a young adult may carry the nickname until death, even though a career change takes place. Some common nicknames that deal with professions are maestro (teacher or any profession where a great deal of skill is needed, such as carpenter, craftsman, musician, bricklayer, or even laborer). Of further interest is that in Mexico and other Latin American countries where bullfighting is practiced, members of the bullfighting team will have the nickmame maestro due to their particular area of expertise in la Corrida de Toros. A butcher might carry the nickname of carnicero and a salesman vendedor. In the education field profesor is a common nickname and is sometimes shortened to el profe. Medical doctors almost always have the nickname doctor or médico. A lawyer will usually have the nickname licenciado (the name of his degree which is equal to a bachelor of arts or science), and dentists and veterinarians will usually be called doctor. A milkman will have lechero and a tailor sastre. The definite article el or la (the) sometimes will accompany the nickname and other times not. Nicknames with reference to a profession in Anglo culture are rarely used with the exception of some legal and medical nicknames.
Hispanics use the shortened form of the name or diminutive just as is done in the Anglo system to show affection. In the Anglo system, Johnny becomes John in later life and Tommy becomes Tom. Susie usually later converts her name to Sue or Susan and Patty to Pat. It is common that later in life the individual will lose the shortened name form in the Anglo system. This is seldom the case with the Hispanic system. Many times the shortened form will stay with the person until death. A colleague relates that in Mérida, Yucatán, a friend and a group of merchants would play dominos usually in a back nook of a bar from around 11:00 a.m. until time to go home for comida. All these men had been friends since childhood and they still called each other by the nicknames they had received when they were little boys (Trimble). Some common diminutives are Toño for Antonio, Concha for Concepción, Quique for Enrique, Pepe for José, Pili for Pilar, Pancho for Francisco, Teté for Teresa, Chabela for Isabel, Chico for Francisco, Chuy for Jesús, Lola for Dolores, Lupe for Guadalupe and Memo for Guillermo.
The third form of placing nicknames relates to a special physical characteristic, racial group, or in some cases a deformity. To the Anglo, this practice may seem cruel. However, in Hispanic culture it is seen more as a sign of affection or cariño than trying to highlight the physical characteristic. “The Anglo sees it as difficult to get used to in the Spanish speaking culture the way that seemingly insulting nicknames are bandied about, without causing any offense whatsoever. For example, Tito calls his father “Viejo” (old) rather than “Papa” [sic]. Everyone has a nickname, and it is usually based on personal appearance or racial background – just the things we seem to most avoid talking about in modern English” (Vanesita). How would most English speakers feel about being called by names which bring attention to some of their most unattractive physical features (like “fatty” or “chrome-dome”)? The Mexicans think nothing of calling someone Gorda, or Gordita if the person is a young girl or Flaco (skinny) or Chato (pug-nose). Most Mexicans [and Hispanics] with these designated names wear them proudly and wouldn’t think of protesting them, much less changing them” (“Surnames”).
At times, a person will be given a nickname pertaining to a physical characteristic when the characteristic does not exist. For example, as a child Juan was called flaco because he was skinny. As he grew older he put on weight and is no longer skinny. However, the nickname flaco will probably stay with him for life. Another example would be to give the nickname zanahoria (carrot) to a red headed male, although the male has no physical characteristic linking him to a carrot (Santa Cruz).
Sometimes in Hispanic culture, a nickname is given to a person with a double meaning attached. In one instance, a tailor was given the nickname El Tigre (the tiger). The tailor felt very proud and honored thinking that this nickname was given for his speed and skill in making fine clothing and his ability for repairing. He later was disheartened when he found out that he was given this nickname because his customers said he ripped and tore up all the clothing that he touched (“Santa Cruz”).
On occasion, a play on words is used when giving a nickname. A man was given the nickname Príncipe Charro (prince of the skilled horsemen). His pride and esteem were very high because people had given him such an elegant nickname. He later felt very deceived and somewhat embarrassed when he found out that his nickname contained a play on words and was really Pinche Chaparro (damned little short one) referring to his short physical stature (Santa Cruz).
We can surmise that the giving of nicknames will continue in Hispanic culture and will probably only be limited by the imagination of the inventor. Anglo culture sees nicknames that address physical and racial characteristics as derogatory. The Hispanics, however, see the use of these nicknames as a way of placing affection on a person regardless of the circumstances. “This simple cultural observation may lead one to conclude that in fact, the Mexicans [and Hispanics in general] tend to be much more accepting of the uniqueness of the individual that we are likely to see north of the Rio Grande” (“Surnames”).
The following is a list of some of the more amusing apodos, the translation and the reason for the nickname.
El Abrelatas. (Canopener): As a young man he had buck teeth. Brothers and sisters said he could open cans with his mouth. El Abrelatas lives and works in Austin, Texas.
El Baboso. (The slobberer, drooler): As a child he slobbered a lot. El Baboso lives in Big Spring, Texas.
La Bicicleta. (Bicycle): This man had bad body odor. His friends used to say apestaba a rayos (he stank to high heaven). Rayos (rays, beam of light) resemble spokes of a bicycle, therefore the nickname. La Bicicleta resided in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexcio.
La Buffy. (No translation): Used because as a young girl she had a large rear end, reminding persons of the rear end of a buffalo. La Buffy resides in Midland, Texas.
Chac Chi. (Maya for red mouth): This is a type of fish found off the Northern coast of Yucatán. The fish is of little commercial value and is not considered very palatable. This fisherman was given this nickname by other fishermen in jest because it seems this was the only type of fish he could catch. Chac Chi fishes today in Chixchalub, Yucatán, Mexico.
La Chita. (Ankle bone but not used in this context): When the four year old brother asked his mother why he and his sister were not alike sexually, the mother replied that little boys were called chito and little girls chita. The nickname stuck for life. La Chita lives in Big Spring, Texas.
El Chango. (Monkey): As a child this person was very active swinging on household furniture. His parents gave him the nickname. El Chango still resides in Big Spring, Texas.
El Chueco. (Twisted or crooked): One side of his face appears crooked or twisted due to paralysis of the facial nerve (“Rutledge”). El Chueco now is serving a long sentence in el Reclusario del Norte federal prison in Mexico, D. F., Mexico.
Coa. (A tool used in the Yucatán to cut grass and weeds): A skilled gardener, Francisco was given this nickname by clients and colleagues for his ability to handle the tool and his excellent ability to cut grass and weeds. Coa lives close to Dzibilchaltún, Yucatán, Mexico.
Las Cucaras. Taken from the noun cucaracha (Cockroach): Used to describe travel habits of a part of a family. Their behavior sometimes reminds other family members of actions of cockroaches as they always travel together and in caravans when going places. Las Cucaras live in Midland, Texas.
Curro. (No translation): Usually given to a very handsome, well dressed man who is popular with women. Sometimes this nickname is given to the chief bullfighter or matador. Ex: El matador Curro Durán from Spain and el matador Curro Rivera of Mexico. Curro currently resides in Midland, Texas.
Gafas de Coca. (Coke bottle lens): His glasses were so thick, they reminded other students of the bottom of the old fashion coke bottle. Gafas lives and works outside of Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico.
La Huera. (The blond, fair or North American woman): Used to dye her hair blond and powder her skin in order to appear more fair. La Huera lives in Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico.
Matador. (The killer): Nickname given to the bullfighter who actually kills the bull. There are many matadores in countries that have bullfighting. Pictured is the El Matador Jorge Gutierrez of San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
La Mayonesa. ( Mayonnaise legs): Given because when she wore a bathing suit, her legs were so white they reminded people of mayonnaise. La Mayonesa lives and works in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico.
El Mocho. (Blunt, mutilated, chopped): When he was young he lost two fingers. Friends gave him the nickname. El Mocho resides in Big Spring, Texas.
El Palomo. (The cock, pigeon): As a young man he was pigeon breasted with an extended rib cage and sternum. El Palomo hangs his hat in Big Spring, Texas.
Pechos. (Breasts): As a young boy he had large breasts that would shake when he walked. His schoolmates gave him the name. Pechos lives in Progreso, Yucatán, Mexico.
El Pecoso. (The freckled one): Given this nickname because he had a lot of freckles. El Pecoso at last word was a resident of the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas.
El Pollero. (Poulterer): This man is 78 years old and married to a woman more than forty years younger. His friends gave him this nickname out of respect. El Pollero resides and works in Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico.
El Rastreador. (The tracker): Given to a border patrol agent for his ability to hunt down and follow tracks of illegal immigrants in the sandy soil of South Texas. El Rastreador used to be stationed in Brownsville, Texas.
Ratón. (Mouse or rat): This individual was given this nickname because his friends thought he had the face of a rat. Ratón lived in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico.
El Resorte. (The bedspring): His manner of walking and the up and down motion resembled the motions of a bedspring going up and down. El Resorte lives and works in Rio Grande, Texas.
El Sabelotodo. (To know it all, to know everything): Given to a person who either knows all or thinks they know all. In Spain it is written and pronounced El sabelotó –Andalusian Spanish omits the last intervocalic d when spoken. (“Trimble”) El Sabelotodo or El Sabelotó resided in Montilla, Córdoba, Spain.
Tuerto. (Blind or blind in one eye): This man was cross eyed and his friends gave him the nickname. Tuerto lived in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico.
El Urraca. (Magpie, loud talking bird related to the crow): This person talked a lot and loudly but very seldom has anything interesting to say. El Uracca lives in Midland, Texas.
Víbora. (Snake, serpent): Was tall and skinny and licked his lips with his tongue constantly when talking resembling the tongue of a snake. Víbora resides in Houston, Texas.
El Wixón. (Pronounced weee-shón) (The big pisser, one who urinates frequently): A combination of the Maya word for urine wix combined with the Spanish superlative ón. As a baby he used to urinate frequently. El Wixón now an adult, works and lives in the Maya village of Timucuy, Yucatán, Mexico.
Foerster, Sharon, Anne Lambright and Fátima Alfonso-Pinto. Punto y Aparte: Spanish in Review: Moving Toward Fluency. 2nd.ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 2003.
“Nickname.” Def. 1. The American Heritage Dictionary 2nd. College. Ed. 1983.
Rutledge, Cynthia D.O. Personal Interview. 16 December 2004.
Santa Cruz, Eduardo. E-Mail Interview. Trans. John G. Gladstein. 15 December 2004.
“Surnames and Nicknames in Mexico.” Mexico File June 1996. 13 Dec. 2004 http://www.mexicofile.com/surnames.htm
Trimble, Robert. E-Mail Interview. 15 December 2004.
Vanestia. “It’s Peru, Baby.” On-Line Posting. 24 March 2004. It’s Peru Baby. 14 Dec 2004 http://itsperubaby.blogspot.com/2004_03_01_itsperubaby_archive.html.