Chucho. Pancho. Nacho. Lupe. Cuca. If you live in Mexico, chances are you know at least one of these people.
Have you ever wondered where their nicknames come from? “Many abbreviated names have their origin in infantile language,” explains Professor Jose Luis Iturrios, an applied linguistics specialist at the Universidad de Guadalajara. “The child pronounces an abbreviated name like Nacho [from Ignacio] and the family ends up saying Nacho too ... and finally as adults, everyone remembers Nacho ... [These nicknames] are already standardized and aren’t going to change.”
Though Mexican nicknames might seem especially unusual, they are fairly constant throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and have existed as long as Spanish itself. A few exceptions exist – Iturríos mentions Pancho, a nickname for Francisco, which is popular in Mexico but not in Spain. He says the reason for these variations is arbitrary. Mexican indigenous languages haven’t had a significant influence on Spanish nicknames, particularly in Jalisco where the language of the long-isolated Huichols has barely mixed with Spanish.
The language of infants creates nicknames via two main processes, economization and “palatalization.” In the first, the speaker simply drops difficult syllables and sounds from a name. Gustavo becomes Tavo and Teresa becomes Tere. Because the consonant “r” is difficult for infants, Alberto loses not only its first syllable but also the “r” to become Beto. Sometimes a diminutive is added to a name (Adolfito from Adolfo) and then a piece of the original name is eliminated (Adolfito becomes Fito).
In the second process, palatalization, the speaker changes a given sound into a palatal sound (produced with the tongue against the roof of the mouth, or hard palate). Ch, a common palatal sound, appears in dozens of Mexican nicknames - Chelo, Chela, Chente, Chuy, Güicho, Lencho, Chayo, Chío, Chona. According to Iturrios, infants prefer palatal sounds (others are “ñ” as in Toño and “y” as in Moy) because their formation symbolizes intimacy: “To palatalize consists in putting the entire body of the tongue against the palate ... It’s an icon of an embrace, an example of physical contact. So the “ch” is very, very apt for expressing affection, for expressing proximity.”