Why Do We Call José “Pepe”?

¡Hola, don Pepito! ¡Hola, Don José! So goes a popular children’s song in Spain … but once you start thinking about it, you realize both of these men are named José, and you start wondering what’s really going on here.

Hola Don Pepito

One of the many things that used to baffle me was the origin of Spanish nicknames. (Oh okay, they still kinda baffle me!) I understood how “Francisco” could become “Fran” and “Beatriz” could become “Bea,” but I didn’t quite understood where the heck “Pepe” came from!

  1. There are no Ps in the name José.
  2. There are the same amount of syllables in both Pepe and José, thus saving you no time.

I decided to turn to the ultimate source, Mario’s dad. As I have explained before, he is knowledgeable about so many aspects of Spanish culture, being a former teacher and all-around know-it-all in the best way. If I ever have a “duda,” he’s the guy I go to, especially if that duda has to do with plants, animals, climate, or Spanish history. He’s my guy.

He told me all about the reasoning behind the nicknaming process, but it all went over my head, a great whoosh! of knowledge flying speedily in one ear and out the other. A few years later, still feeling rather flummoxed, I sat down to put an end to this ignorance of mine.

  • Pepe. This diminutive comes from the name José as I said earlier. There are two theories out there. The first, often espoused by the Spanish, is that it comes from the abbreviation of pater putativus (P.P.), which means “supposed Father” in Latin, attributed to Joseph of Nazareth (José de Nazaret), Mary’s husband and Jesus’s supposed father. This is mainly a popular legend, and most reputable sources claim that the real story is that Pepe comes from the Italian Beppe, short for Giuseppe (the Italian cognate for Joseph). I guess even most Spaniards have something to learn from this blog post!
  • Paco. Paco comes from Francisco. St. Francis of Assisi was known as the Pater Comunitatis (Father of the Community) when he founded the Franciscan order. Thus, we get Paco from the first two letters of each word.

Other diminutives of interest:

  • Chema. One of Mario’s friends in Salamanca when I met him was called Chema, and I had no idea his real name was José María for the longest time. Never mind that whole using a female name thing as well.
  • Sito. Mario’s cousin, Sito, ran the marathon with him, as you might recall. Any guesses to his given name? Alfonso. Sitos are usually Alfonsos, although there is probably an exception out there somewhere. Alfonso –> Alfonsito –> Sito.
  • Quique/Kike. Comes from Enrique.
  • Chus, Susi, Suso. Those with the name Jesús out there have a lot of different nicknames!

Which Spanish nicknames do you find the most amusing or interesting?

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11 comments

  1. I’ve always thought the double /pe/ was a holdover from the end of an older form of the name—perhaps “Josep” (cf. Catalan Josèp) or “Josepe” (cf. Italian Giuseppe)—that stuck even though the terminal /pe/ was lost due to elision (Josepe >> José). Interestingly, the nickname for a Portuguese José is Zezé :)

    My favorite nicknames in Spanish are variants of the name Manuel: you’ve got Manolo, Manolete, etc.

  2. I loooooove diminutives (it’s the Andalusian in me) and often call my students by those names: Ignacio in CAE is Nachote, Quique in preschool, Kikote. I think boys do it way better, too, especially those with two names: Luismi, Juanma, Juanjo…My kids will have one name y ya está.

  3. It’s the same in Czech and it never made any sense why Josef = Pepe! Actually, on the first day of class with one of my classes, I took attendance and couldn’t figure out why I was missing Pepe and wrote him in and then marked Josef absent. By the end of the week, I remarked that Josef must have dropped the course. To which “Pepe” perked up and informed me he was there. I said “I thought your name was Pepe?” And all my students laughed really hard. Awesome. *face palm*

  4. You think in Spanish they are weird? try French. I still don’t get it!
    And my mother also chose my sister and my names so they don’t have a short name! (Irene – me, Gloria – my sis). I intend to do the same with my kids.

  5. Francisco is a very curious case. Additionally to Paco, there are other variants like Pancho (especially in Mexico but in Spain is used too), Pacho (used mainly in Asturias), Pachi or Patxi (in Basque Country). Furthermore, in Andalucia it’s very popular the version Curro. This is particulary funny because curro means work too.

    Another thing your father in law probably dind’t tell you. In the colonial war in Morocco, at early XX century, moroccan snipers were nicknamed “pacos” because of the sound of their rifles.

    Another curious case: Lolo is a short form of Manuel but Lola is a short form of Dolores, not Manuela

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