Pepe and Paco — 2 mysterious Spanish nicknames

Why are Pepe and Paco the nicknames for José and Francisco?

Thereby hangs a linguistic urban legend…

Most Spanish nicknames are formed with the diminutives -ito and -ita, as in Miguelito (“little Michael”) from Miguel, or Sarita (“little Sara”) from Sara. Others started as acronyms, such as Mabel from MAría IsaBEL, or abbreviations, such as Nando for Fernando. Two common nicknames, though, are real puzzlers: Pepe, the nickname for José (“Joseph”), and Paco, the nickname for Francisco (“Francis”).

When I studied in Barcelona one summer, I was delighted to learn that both these nicknames have religious origins. The explanation in our textbook went something like this:

In the New Testament, Joseph was Mary’s husband, but not Jesus’s father: only his putative (“so-called”) father, or padre putativo in Spanish. Abbreviate this as p.p., give it a Spanish pronunciation (the letter p being pronounced /pe/), and you get Pepe. As for Paco: Saint Francis founded the Franciscan order of monks and was therefore the father of the Franciscan community, or pater comunitatis, in Latin. Take the first syllable of each word, put them together, and you get the nickname Paco.

Since that summer, I’ve often seen this explanation mentioned as fact in various websites about Spanish names, but couldn’t find any scholarly validation of it. So I turned to the ultimate source, querying the Real Academia Española through its on-line consultation service.   Their answer was unabashedly negative:

[The] nickname Pepe comes, in reality, from the Italian Beppe, itself a nickname for Giuseppe….In the case of Paco, none of the data on names that we have at our disposal support the etymology of pater comunitatis.

On a personal note, I now deeply regret that I have often passed this delightful but false etymological tidbit on to my students. Never again…Live and learn.

16 thoughts on “Pepe and Paco — 2 mysterious Spanish nicknames

  1. jay

    Wikipedia says that Pepe is based on ‘Josep’, an earlier version of Jose, and closer to the original Joseph.

    (Spanish nicknames often are based on the end of names).

    Reply
      1. Dave Brast

        Sure, trust la Real academia española, but they’ve only given a negative response: “none of the data on names that we have at our disposal support the etymology of pater comunitatis.” That’s what they have to say until they have something substantive one way or the other. If they had said Paco is from blah blah blah according to Profesor Fulano Mengano who attributes that to blah blah blah, then there’d be reason to believe that pater comunitatis is not the origin of Paco. Until then we should keep an open mind and say we’re not certain about the origin of Paco, but we have heard it’s from pater comunitatis.

        Reply
  2. Edward Gonzalez

    La Real Academia Española (REA) has their version, but even though they’re the source that everyone regards as the absolute authority in spanish language, it does not mean any other conclussion is false. Webster dictionary is the most used source in English but there are many others as well which are not readily dismissed as La RAE tends to do.

    Reply
  3. Edward Gonzalez

    The Real Academia Española (REA) has their version, but even though they’re the source that everyone regards as the absolute authority in spanish language, it does not mean any other conclussion is false. Webster dictionary is the most used source in English but there are many others as well which are not readily dismissed as La RAE tends to do.

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      Thank you for your comment, Edward. If you know of a published source that supports the religious etymologies for Pepe and Paco, please share them.

      Reply
  4. Jon Aske

    In my view, the most reasonable theory for the nickname Pepe it comes from Italian Peppe, which is a (more reasonable) hypocoristic of the name Giuseppe (other alternative Italian hypocoristics are Beppe and Peppino). By more reasonable I mean that it is a reasonable shortening in child talk.

    Less obvious, but equally likely, is that Paco is a hypocoristic derived from Italian name Franco in child talk. Franco is a common version of the name Francesco. Actually, Francesco is a diminutive of Franco. It was the nickname given to Saint Francis (né Giovanni) by his father. It meant ‘little Frenchman’.

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      I don’t really have a dog in this hunt. The Beppe and Peppe hypotheses are very close, and as you said in your comment a little later, “we will never know for sure” about Pancho. “Franco” meaning “French”, as I’m sure you know, comes from the Germanic tribe, the Franks.

      Reply
  5. Jon Aske

    By the way, another theory I like about the source of Paco, which also accounts for the other hypocoristic of Francisco, namely Pancho, is that they both derive from Pa(n)chico, a child-talk version of Francisco. Panchico would have been reinterpreted as a diminutive, and from there we get the back-formed Pancho. Paco is a bit more of a stretch, but it is not an unreasonable result. But we will never know for sure.

    Reply
  6. Babbleon

    You may want to check the language of Catalonia, i. e. Catala, for clues. Jusep is a common name there and may be closer to Pepe than is Jose. Another name in use in Catalunya (for a man) is Sese, which I was told derives from both Jose and Pepe.

    Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      Interesting! If you’re into Catalan, you might want to check out this earlier post about Catalan vocabulary, and two posts (here and here) about the Catalan vs. Castellano controversy in Catalonia. Gracias por visitar mi blog.

      Reply
    1. jhochberg Post author

      I’m confused. On 2016/05/18 you commented on my post about Pepe NOT being derived from Padre Putativo. What do you mean by “[your] post”?

      Reply
      1. Babbleon

        I am the one who is confused – sorry about that. But people in Barcelona today do indeed maintain that Pepe derives from Padre Putativo. Oh, well.

        Reply

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