Gerardo Licón’s KCET story on pachucos, young Mexican-Americans in the WWII era, is excellent and taught me a lot about a culture of which I had only foggy and cliché-ridden ideas. What makes it LH material is the following paragraph:

This brings us back to the question regarding why pachucos in Los Angeles seemed to speak more [African American] jive than pachuco caló [slang]. It is because Mexican Americans in Los Angeles were greatly influenced by other groups in the U.S. compared to the Mexicans that were more recent arrivals to Los Angeles, especially from the border area of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Border cities have a greater degree of language mixture (something akin to Spanglish) than cities further inland as well. At that time, El Paso was the primary point of entry for Mexicans into the U.S. The slang name of El Paso was “El Chuco.” Many Mexicans would cross into the U.S. and go to El Chuco, or in Spanish slang, “Pa’l Chuco.” When young Mexican Americans took trains along the Southern Pacific railroad, through Tucson, Arizona, to Los Angeles for wartime employment opportunities, they were referred to as pachucos. They brought their form of border Spanglish to Los Angeles with them. Mexican American zoot suiters native to Los Angeles spoke more jive; migrants from El Paso spoke pachuco caló with more of a Spanish-language and Spanish slang influence. This is also why when reporters asked Mexican citizens, after the Zoot Suit Riots, where pachucos had come from, many said they came from El Paso.

Naturally, I was dubious about this derivation, and sure enough, when I looked it up in AHD I found a different etymology:

[American Spanish, person from El Paso, pachuco, possibly alteration of payuco, yokel, from Spanish payo, peasant, perhaps from Gallego Payo, Pelagius (considered a typical peasant name).]

And googling brought me this webpage by the redoubtable Barry Popik, whose first paragraph reverses Licón’s causation:

El Paso is infrequently called “El Chuco” or “Chuco Town”/”Chucotown.” The term comes from the word “pachuco,” a Mexican Spanish Caló dialect word of disputed origin, dating from the 1930s-1940s.

After that it has as many citations and theories as you could possibly want.


  1. Trond Engen says

    Pachuco aside, I was immediately interested in the zoot suits. Seems like a crossover to the “gouster” post.

  2. Yes, it’s hard to resist the phrase “zoot suit.”

  3. It’s also reminiscent of the contemporaneous Russian stilyagi phenomenon.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    A squid eating dough in a polyethelene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?

    Sorry, it’s the immediate association for the word “pachuco” for me. I have occasionally thought of adopting this as my ringtone, but I always come to the sad realisation that I don’t have the personality to carry it off. (Also, it might conceivably pall after a while.)

  5. Ah, another Captain Beefheart fan! When I first heard Trout Mask Replica, I felt as if I had been dunked into an alternate universe; soon I had to have my own copy of the album, and after playing it many times I lost the ability to play vinyl, and then a kind soul gave me a CD with the music and I was happy again. Bulbous, also tapered!

  6. Jim (another one) says

    The whole thing might be a lot simpler than any of the explanations given, particularly the second one. Pachuca is the capital of Hidalgo State and Hidalgo was a source of much of the migration before and during WWII, and El Paso was indeed the main entry point for that migration. I guess we’re lucky this didn’t get identified with the Federal District – ‘pachuco’ sounds a long cooler than ‘chilango’. Alongside ‘pachuco’ there is ‘pachuca’, which more specifically refers to a certain kind of snazzy style of dress.

  7. That’s mentioned in the Popik link:

    Another theory is that the derivation of the word “pachuco” came from Pachuca, the name of the city in the Mexican state of Hidalgo where Mickey Garcia, thought by some to be the originator of the zoot suit, befriended a local of the town known as “El Hueso”. El Hueso was an elderly man known only to have a tattoo on his right shoulder. It is unknown what the tattoo said but some have claimed that it bore two names: one beginning with a “J” and the other with a “B”. Mickey Garcia brought his style from Pachuca, Mexico to San Diego.

    Well, the derivation from Pachuca, anyway; I doubt Mickey Garcia and “El Hueso” have anything to do with it.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    This seems like the right website to ask why “bulbous” in the canonical recording of the “squid eating dough” text is pronounced with the FOOT vowel (or something similar) not the STRUT vowel. What’s up with that? Wiktionary does say “IPA(key): /ˈbʌlbəs/, /ˈboʊlbəs/” but I can’t personally recall coming across (and noticing) any notable group of Anglophones who don’t use the former and the latter ought to come out as GOAT than FOOT, right? But the Pachuco Cadaver intro has a totally different vowel in “bulbous” than it does in “dough.”

    Every other vowel in that sentence sounds like something that could come out of my own mouth in my own idiolect, at least under certain circumstances, which is what makes the “bulbous” so jarring to my ear. Here’s btw a video w/ some vintage performance footage of uncertain provenance.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    There’s some studio-chatter dialogue at the beginning of “Pena” (source of the “also tapered” bit referenced above) where “bulbous” comes out of the mouths of both the Cap’n Hisself and the Mascara Snake. They’re not using *exactly* the same vowel, but they’re both using one that sounds non-standard to me – almost as if one of them was trying to imitate the other’s distinctive pronunciation of the word but not getting it precisely right.

  10. Yes, I always think of the word with that “bull” sound since hearing them say it.

  11. Jim (another one) says

    “Well, the derivation from Pachuca, anyway; I doubt Mickey Garcia and “El Hueso” have anything to do with it.”

    I agree. There’s almost a formalism about these things where everything starts with some obscure nobody, as if the author is playing “I’ve got a secret.”

  12. I haven’t heard the audio, but for the record I say /ˈbʊlbəs/ and /ˈbʊlb/ and indeed /bʊl/, likewise /ˈpʊlpəs/ and /ˈpʊlp/ and /ˈpʊl/ and for that matter /fʊl/.

  13. David Marjanović says

    The FOOT-STRUT split is either largely blocked before /l/ in America, or we’re looking at syllabic [ɫ] – or maybe even reanalyses thereof as /ʊl/.

    The most famous example may be the Vulcans of Star Trek.

  14. Eli Nelson says

    Yes, it is attested that some Americans generally have /ʊl/ instead of /ʌl/. I will post links in a followup post. Reanalysis of syllabic /l/ as /ʊl/ may be related, but it doesn’t have to be. I myself identify syllabic /l/ with /ʊl/, but I don’t merge /ʌl/ into /ʊl/.

    I just realized around a week ago that in some environments my /ʌl/ and /ɑl/ sound extremely similar. I am cot-caught merged so perhaps this would fall under the category of the /ʌl/~/ɔl/ merger that is somewhat documented. The distinction in general clearly exists in my phonemic system; I think it is most robust in contexts like “color” vs. “caller/collar/choler,” and nearly as robust in contexts like “hull” vs. “haul.” However, when there is a following tautosyllabic voiceless consonant, I find it hard to hear the difference between /ʌl/ and /ɑl/, as in adult, insult, exult vs salt, exalt. “Adalt, insalt, exalt” doesn’t exactly sound like the normal pronunciation of the first set of words to me, but it doesn’t sound as odd to me as I would have expected before listening to how I said it.

  15. Eli Nelson says
  16. The FOOT-STRUT split is either largely blocked before /l/ in America

    I wouldn’t say either “largely” or “blocked”. The general rule (outside Scots) is that /ʊ/ > /ʌ/ except after a labial. What’s happened here (and I believe this is still a minority position in North American English) is that /Kʌl/ > /Kʊl/ where /K/ is any non-labial. So what has happened is that /hʌl/, /gʌl/, /dʌl/ > /hʊl/, /gʊl/, /dʊl/, thus partly undoing the older change.

    In Scots, /ʊ/ > /ʌ/ unconditionally, so Scots loans into English can bypass these rules. In particular, English putt is a borrowing of the Scots cognate of English put.

  17. I just remembered an acquiantance, a Texan, who pronounced put as /pʌt/. I don’t recall him say putt, but presumably it was a homophone. What’s the extent of that merger?

  18. No idea; never heard of it.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    The person linked by Eli Nelson (says he has /ʊl/ where most AmEng speakers would have /ʌl/, says he’s a Northern California native) goes by the name of “nohat,” so I’m not sure how much credence he can be given here at the Hattery.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Some English dialects around Birmingham (the real one, not the one in Alabama) have a vowel like [ɤ] for both of the foot/strut vowels.

    Incidentally, although ‘braid’ Scots does not have the foot/strut split, Scots Standard English does.

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