Mexican X-plainer: Tolkien, Sephardim, and Northern Mexican Spanish

If you come to the US Southwest / Northern Mexico, you’ll hear a certain word quite a bit, especially if children are around: HUERCO (also spelled güerco). It means “kid” (with a slight nuance of “brat,” to my ear).

The word is barely used elsewhere. So what’s its origin?

You may not be aware of this, but there is a dialect of Spanish spoken by groups of Sephardic Jews around the world. Commonly known as “Ladino” by non-speakers, this “Judeo-Spanish” or Djudeo preserves a lot of features of Spanish as it was spoken before Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

A very common word in that dialect is “gwerko,” meaning “devil,” as in the phrase “el gwerko ke no te yebe” (may the Devil not take you). This word has an unusual origin for dialect spoken mostly by Sephardim.

It comes from Roman mythology.

“Orcus” was a Roman god of the Underworld, punisher of broken oaths, who probably arose in the Etruscan pantheon. Over time, his Latin name became synonymous with dark monsters and demons. You’re probably most familiar with its derivative “orc” from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien came across this word as a loan into Old English: orcneas, a demonic race of beings mentioned in Beowulf. Tolkien glossed “orc” as evil spirit or boogeyman, and signaled that, indeed, the origin of the Old English word was the Latin name Orcus.

Now, in Vulgar Latin (the variety spoken by the working class), “orcus” was “ǫrcu.” As Vulgar Latin evolved into Spanish on the Iberian Peninsula, some of the “o” sounds diphthongized into /we/. So “ǫrcu” became /werko/, which in Djudeo is written “gwerko.”

After the Expulsion of 1492, many hundreds of Sephardim came to New Spain, settling in what is now the northeastern part of Mexico (especially places like Monterrey), hiding as conversos or crypto-Jews. Today, in fact, thousands of folks in northern Mexico and the US Southwest have some Jewish ancestry. Their word for “devil” (along with many customs and food) was adopted by the broader Northern Mexican population.

Over time, “huerco” came to refer to rambunctious or naughty kids the same way the more wide-spread “pingo” does (in Mexico, “pingo” also means “devil,” though it has different meanings elsewhere).

Eventually, “huerco” ended up meaning just “kid.”

Fascinating little devils, aren’t they?

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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