Where would my family tree be without nicknames? I know that it would be a lot more difficult trying to remember which Manuel or John belonged to what family!
Nicknames make it easier to tell people with similar names apart. They also depart a little bit of information about the individual that wouldn’t otherwise be known. Nicknames were a part of the Portuguese cultural traditions and 20th century American life.
What are Portuguese Alcunhas?
You may have heard the word alcunha before. Alcunha is Portuguese for nickname. Nicknames were an integral part of the Portuguese tradition. The Portuguese weren’t the only ones who had nicknames, of course. However, when you go through records you can quickly see how alcunhas are a part of the person’s identity. They are often recorded with their alcunhas.
An alcunha is usually descriptive giving a key to the person’s identity, characteristics, or personality. It might also describe a whole family. My de Mello family of Maia, Ribeira Grande, Sao Miguel Island, Azores added Castanho to their surname in the late 1820s. I don’t know why. But, Castanho can mean chestnut referring to the food or the color. Perhaps they had a darker complexion than the other Mello families and it became easier to identify them this way.
It can be a lot of fun uncovering the nicknames used in your family. Below are lists of alcunhas or nicknames found in my tree as well as two other researchers.
The Pacheco Family and Their Nicknames
These are some of the nicknames I found when researching my Pacheco family tree. You get a little idea of who the person was or how people saw them when you know their nickname.
- Babe Souza–He and his father shared the same first name. Rather than using Junior, he was known as Babe.
- Dean–Anton’s godson had a slight speech impediment and could not pronounce “padrinho” (meaning godparent). All he could pronounce was “Dean”.
- Nanny–Dean’s wife. She was very motherly and was known as Nanny to many in the Pacheco clan.
- Chachy–I came across several Chachys in the 1940s and 1950s. It seems to have been a popular nickname of the time. My dad was a Chachy.
- Knob of the Door–This man drank too much and his nose was a bright red beacon.
- Hot Shot Sha Wa–He grew up during a time when this phrase was common and was always saying it.
- Troubles–A young girl who got into constant trouble on the sugar beet plantation in Spreckels.
- Bohne–He was nicknamed after his favorite baseball player from the 1920s.
- Kid Cyclone–Seen in the photo above, he was a boy who was constantly in trouble.
- Johnny Sailor–He always wore a sailor hat, but was never a sailor.
- Johnny Cowboy–He worked as a cowboy on a sugar plantation of Kauai.
- The Reds–A family whose children all had red hair. The children were known as Tony Red, Bella Red, Mary Red, and Helen Red.
- The Jesus Kids–Family lore says their father was a stowaway. The other passengers on the ship to Hawaii nicknamed him Jesus because of his long hair. He adopted Jesus as his surname upon arrival in Hawaii. Later one of his son changed the surname to Santos, but that son’s children were always known as the Jesus Kids.
- Joe Fat–He was not a large man.
- Johnny Secondhand–Being married several times was how he earned his nickname!
- Jimmy the Painter–He was a man named Jaime who worked as a painter.
- Johnny Yellowfish–This one is unknown, but I’d sure like to figure out who he was and why he got this nickname!
- Frenchy–He was a man of French descent who married into a Portuguese family.
- Ace of Spades–He had a dark complexion.
- Pee in the Pants–Poor boy! Whenever he played he just couldn’t remember to get to the bathroom in time.
- Barquiera–One of my female Azorean ancestors added this to her surname. I was told it had to do with fish or fishing. One can speculate how she obtained this alcunha!
Note: Some of these like Knob of the Door and Pee in the Pants had Portuguese forms. Unfortunately, I don’t know what those are and the people who told me couldn’t remember.
A Collection of Portuguese Nicknames
These nicknames were shared by a dear friend who grew up in Oakland with my relatives. Some of these will make you laugh because they are so descriptive!
- Vien ca’ rapaz’–meaning “come here boy”–A grandfather was always calling his sons this when he needed them. The name stuck.
- Malassado–meaning “poorly baked”. One man was a home baker and he would never brown his bread.
- Cabecinha–meaning “little head”. A lady with a small head was nicknamed “Cabecinha”.
- Por minlha salvacacao–meaning “by my salvation”. This was the nickname for a man who would end every sentence with this expression so that you would believe him.
- Filhoca–meaning “maker of many children”. This was used as a surname for a family whose father was known to have many children.
- Coo da Avo–meaning “Grandmother’s behind”. There was a young boy in Camacha, Madeira who was visiting his grandmother. It was a cold night. They did not have heaters or fireplaces. Time came for him to go to bed and he slept with his grandmother. In the morning the men asked him, “how did you sleep, were you cold?”. He said, “No! Grandmothers “Co” (rearend) was warm.” He cuddled up to her back all night. Well, that boy grew up and came to California–and the folks here all referred to him as “Coo da Avo”–Grandmothers behind!!!!! They would chuckle when they said that, but they were careful that he didn’t hear.
More Nickname Fun from the Portuguese Hawaiian Quarter
These nicknames were shared by a cousin from the Hawaiian side of my tree. Do you get a sense of early Hawaiian life when you hear these?
- Pinnicky Souza– Pinnicky was an off-shoot of that ‘lil ol’ bed pan that was kept under the bed to ward off the urge to traipse out to the outhouse in the cool of the evening!
- Ploddy Gouveia– He was “pilado” (bald).
- Old Man Batata–We called one of the camp policeman in Lihue by the name “Old Man Batata” as he was so rotund that his poor mount would sag at its middle.
- Ti Content–One uncle was called “‘Ti Content” as he was always happy.
- Ol’ Man Barruga–He had a huge dark mole on his nose.
- Foguete–meaning “a rocket”. He always had the knack of disappearing in a hurry.
- Old Man Spaulding–He was a fellow who was a great baseball player, so they named him after the maker of baseballs.
- Espada–This family of fishermen were actually from the Silva clan. But, with the number of Silvas in and about Kauai, why not go by the name “Espada”?
Did your family use nicknames? Tell us about them in the comments!
© 2002-2019 Melody Lassalle
Special thanks to M. Campos and R. Silva for their help in compiling this list!