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.