Mexican X-plainer: A Brat by Any Other Name…

After my discussion of “huerco,” I thought I’d spend some time looking at other Mexican Spanish synonyms for “kid” and where they come from.

First up is that famous (Central) Mexican term “escuincle” (es KWEENK leh), from the Nahuatl “itzcuintli,” meaning “dog” but also “ferocious” or “violent” (an example of this latter use is “itzcuintli in noyolloh, huel chichi” meaning “my heart is fierce, it’s violent” or literally “my heart’s a hound, a real dog”).

You can intuit how such a word, with its nuances of toughness and loyalty and pack-mindedness, could come to be used to describe little ragamuffins in a dismissive, crude, but begrudgingly loving way … which is how “escuincle” is used today.

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Aztec glyph for “itzcuintli”

Note: Contrary to some sources, “itzcuintli” did not mean “hairless dog” (that’s xoloitzcuintli). It was instead just a synonym of “chichi,” much like the way we use “canine” and “dog” in English. That’s borne out by what the Mexica said of the Spaniards’ hounds upon seeing them: “in īmitzcuinhuān huehhuēyipopōl” — “their dogs are really very big.”

You may be less familiar with the Northwestern Mexican term “buki” (as in the musical group “Los Bukis” and “El Buki” — Marco Antonio Solís Sosa — the group’s breakout star). It’s commonly used to refer to a boy or young man, and it also has indigenous roots. “Buki” arose from Cahitan languages like Yaqui and Mayo. It was first recorded as “vuqui” and said to mean “slave,” “beggar,” or “petty thief.”

When we look more closely at Arizona and Sonora Yaqui, we find the verb “buke/vuke” meaning “to own/raise” and the derivations “buki/vuki.” In Yaqui, then, “buki” has the sense of “something owned/possessed/raised” and can be glossed “pet,” “livestock,” “child,” or, yes, “slave,” depending on the context. (One wonders whether “slave” was an adaptation of the word for the Spanish practice of enslaving the Yaqui. There was plenty of slavery in Mesoamerica, but not among these nations.)

Los Bukis. Heh.

Here’s another: chamaco, my dad’s favorite word for us kids. It comes from the Nahuatl verb “chamāhua,” originally meaning “[for a child] to grow or fill out.” It could also be used to describe how maize or cacao developed. The Spanish noun itself (“chamaco,” used throughout Mexico, but stereotypically a more Northern term) comes from the adjective forms of this indigenous verb: “chamactic” and “chamāhuac.” They basically mean “a grown kid” or “big boy/girl.” One imagines adoring older relatives pinching cheeks & getting sullen stares.

“Guache” is used a lot in Michoacán and other parts of the Tierra Caliente region of Mexico. It’s derived from the Purepecha words “uátsï” or “uáche,” meaning “child,” “offspring” or (in some communities) “young woman.”

Also derived from Purepecha is the word “cocho” or “kocho,” which is used in Guerrero and elsewhere to mean “kid” or “guy.” Its original form was “kúchi,” meaning “pig.” Man, we like to call kids dogs and pigs and pet, don’t we!

(Note that “cocho” has worse meanings, too.)

Another great term is “chilpayate,” meaning “little kid.” This appears to come from Nahuatl, but its meaning is surprising. It’s pretty clearly a blend of “tzipitl” (sickly, whiny baby) and “pāyātl” (wooly caterpillar), giving us “tzipipāyātl.” The compound has this feeling of “a fussy baby you cocoon like a caterpillar so it calms the hell down.”

The /ts/ to /tʃ/ (“tz” to “ch”) shift is very common when adopting Nahuatl words into Mexican Spanish. We call this “palatalization.” A movement upward of the tongue is all it takes. “Chichicuilote” (a bird, the Wilson’s plover), for example, comes from “tzitzicuilōtl.”

“Tzipitl” is also the source of several related words, including another term for little kid, “chipil” or “chipilito.”

In Sinaloa and Sonora, you may hear people refer to a kid as a “plebe.” This word comes from Latin “plebs,” meaning ordinary or working class people. In fact, “la plebe” is a collective construction that still means “the [unwashed] masses.”

The use of “plebe” for “kid” appears to arise from the old Roman dichotomy between noble patricians (Spanish “patricios” from Latin “patricii,” seen as metaphorical parents) & plebeians (Spanish “plebeyos” from Latin “plebs,” the metaphorical “children” of the patricians).

Then there’s the word “morro,” which began to mean “kid” in Northern Mexico and has now spread everywhere. The origins of this usage are harder to pin down. It has other meanings, including “small rounded hill,” “nose of a plane,” and “shamelessness/ impudence.”

Its etymology is pretty straightforward. In Vulgar Latin, “murrum” meant “snout.” And its evolved form, “morro,” means that as well: snout or protruding lips. So perhaps this sense of “kid” comes from pouting (protruding one’s lower lip), a go-to strategy of children everywhere.

“Murrum,” by the way, appears to have been a loanword from some ancient Celtic language. It gave rise to the Franco-Provençal “mor, morre” (muzzle), French “moraine” and Italian “morena” (debris from glaciers), Old Spanish “morra” (top of the head), which gave rise to “morrión” (helmet).

The synecdochal relationship between morro-lips and morro-kid seems supported by the fact that morro/a can also mean boy/girlfriend. So imagine someone saying, “Ese morrito andaba con su morra” or “That squirt was hanging out with his chick.” As he’d be kissing his morra with his morro … kind of reinforces my theory.

About time to wrap this up. Here’s a toughie. “Lepe.” In Chihuahua, mostly, this strange word is used for “kid.” And it has stumped me. You see, “Lepe” is a last name and a city in Spain…and in some places, it can mean “mentally deficient.” Why?

I have a working theory. There’s a phenomenon in Spain: making jokes about people from the town of Lepe. Like Aggies in Texas (or Gallegos through Latin America), “Leperos” (not “léperos”) are made fun of as hicks and morons.

How this situation arose is debatable, but here’s some fun trivia: the Spaniard who supposedly first sighted American land (AT NIGHT) was Juan Rodrigo Bermejo (known as Rodrigo de Triana). In the middle of his watch, Rodrigo started shouting “Land! Land!” It was two o’clock in the morning on October 12, 1492. Colombus and his ships were approaching the Bahamas. Rodrigo was right, but … weird. It was night. Was this the beginning of the Lepe curse? Hahaha! Later, Rodrigo traveled to Africa and became a Muslim. I’m sure that endeared him to his fellow Spaniards.

There are all sorts of Spanish sayings about “Lepe,” too: “ir donde las Lepe” is to screw up your calculations. “Saber más que Lepe” is to be pretty smart, whereas “ser más tonto que Lepe” is to be a real dumbass. A “lepe” can also be a smack to the forehead.

See a pattern? Perhaps “lepe” arises from “niño lepe” or “dumb little kid.”

Or perhaps I’m totally wrong. If you know more, let me know, please, because I feel dumber than Lepe right now.

And finally, by request of a follower, we have the bizarre word “gormijo” as a synonym for “kid.” Originally this was an adjective meaning “sickly, weak” when describing children. I HAVE NO IDEA WHERE IT COMES FROM. There are literally just two attestations of its use in print. One is in a dictionary of Mexicanisms (whence the definition I provided) and one is in the novel Ironias de la vida: novela de costumbres nacionales, published by Mexican author Pantaleón Tovar in 1851, in which the phrase “gormijo del infierno” is used to describe someone.

Sounds like a “huerco desgraciado” to me, hahaha!

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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