Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Nicknames and Lazy Efficiency

January 21, 2015

Nicknames and Lazy Efficiency

I’ve heard some beautiful names on my travels, but I suppose they’re a bit too grand for daily wear and tear, as you might say. The Gaffer, he says: “Make it short, and then you won’t have to cut it short before you can use it.” – Lord of the Rings

Perhaps it was the Venezuelan education of the ’70s. Perhaps it was the punctilious Christian teachers that insisted on a full, complete and well-articulated pronunciation of words. Whatever the case, the Uruguayan dialect of Spanish has some particularities that were new to me, though I suspect are broader than my limited Latin American experience.

There is a certain logic to the flagrant amputation of Spanish words. To call a “computador” a “compu” makes a lot of sense when you know what the last two syllables will be. Likewise cutting “cumpleaños” (birthday) down to “cumpli” is especially convenient for the children who seem to attend one every week. Perhaps the most common is the exorcism of just one syllable of the ubiquitous “tranquilo” to “tranqui”.

However, when the carnage extends to phrases, now I know I’m in uncharted territory. To turn two words “Ya esta” (that’s enough) into a monosyllable “Ta” – seems a crime of language.

But the mutilation of language does not stop there. It extends deeply and extensively to the area of names. And while one might give credit and presume the shortening of words or names demonstrates a certain efficiency in the use of our breath, I suspect it comes from a cultural laziness to expend more mental or verbal energy than absolutely necessary.

Proper Jewish Uruguayan names are extraordinarily unimaginative. Almost everyone is named Daniel. If you forgot someone’s name and you call them Daniel, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. Gabriel is also an extremely popular name. Rafael is not uncommon (the angels did well in Uruguay). Debora is a hugely popular girls name. Now the problem with these extremely popular names that everyone has is that at times you have no idea who someone is talking about. But fear not! The Uruguayans have a solution to that with the even more popular nicknames.

The most common type of nickname is to shorten or mangle someone’s last name. Gabriel Boruchovas is efficiently shortened to “Boru.” Some retain childhood nicknames well into adulthood, so that “Pato” (Duck) seems to be a perfectly reasonable form of address. Another curious phenomenon is the love-fest Uruguayans seems to have with the consonant “ch” (as in chocolate, not as in Michelle). I do not lie when I say I know people who are called: Chocho, Chiche, Chichi, Chuchu and I’m sure I’m forgetting some other iterations of a double “ch” with a variety of vowels.

I count myself fortunate that I arrived in Uruguay ready with a two-syllable nickname, so that “Bentzi” seems to come easily to Uruguayan lips, though some that want to be even more efficient, just call me “Rav.”

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