Argentineans might just be the best and most prolific users of nicknames (‘sobrenombres’ or ‘apodos’ in castellano) in the entire universe. One has only to look at the Argentine football team to get some choice examples. I give you:
Lionel Messi aka ‘La Pulga’ (the flea) due to his small size and his playing style (popping up everywhere and stinging the opposition);
Sergio Aguero aka ‘El Kun’ due to his resemblance to Kun-Kun, a Japanese anime character who’s popular in Argentina;
Carlos Tevez aka ‘El Apache’ because the barrio where he’s from (Ejército de los Andes) is itself nicknamed Fuerte Apache;
Javier Mascherano aka ‘El Jefecito’ (the little boss) because he replaced Leo ‘El Jefe’ Astrada as the number five player for River Plate;
Juan Sebastian Verón aka ‘La Brujita’ (the little witch) because his father was nicknamed ‘La Bruja’;
Gabriel Heinze aka ‘El Gringo’ because he’s blonde and looks like a foreigner;
Sergio Romero aka ‘Chiquito’ (shorty) because he’s really tall (6ft 3in);
Gonzalo Higuain aka ‘El Pipita’ (little pipe) because he’s the son of Jorge Nicolás ‘El Pipa’ Higuain;
Martin Palermo aka ‘El Loco’ (crazy) because he has a highly eccentric personality, and finally
Jonas Gutierrez aka ‘El Galgo’ (the greyhound) due to his long legs and ability to run and run.
Aside from specific nicknames like these, Argentines also love generic nicknames – the type that’s usually based on a person’s most distinctive feature. Anyone who’s overweight is ‘gordo’ (fat) or ‘gordito’ (little fatty), anyone with darker skin is ‘negro,’ anyone who looks Asian is ‘chino,’ Russian ‘ruso’ and so on.
Finally, in preference to using names at all, Argentines will commonly refer to their friends using random terms of endearment (which often double as insults if used as such). Hence we have ‘che’ (dude), ‘boludo’ (big balls), ‘pelotudo’ (lots of different translations but personally I like ‘dumbass’), ‘loco’ (crazy) and many others.
So let’s get all professor-of-linguistics for a bit. Why are nicknames so popular in Argentina? It’s a very interesting question.
One answer to this question, maybe not a complete one, is that there is no such thing as political correctness here in Argentina. Political correctness, or in other words ‘the practice of avoiding language and behavior that might offend,’ has become so natural to us in the West that the fact it doesn’t exist here is hard for us to wrap our heads around. But here, deliberately dwelling on the fact that someone is fat by calling them ‘gordo,’ or Chinese (or Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese) by calling them ‘chino,’ or black by calling them ‘negro,’ is perfectly fine.
Another possible answer is that it’s natural to use nicknames when you’re already altering nouns (as Spanish speakers do) in order to convey different meanings. These alterations are called diminutive and augmentative suffixes.
Diminutive and augmentative suffixes are used for all kinds of purposes. A ‘casita’ usually just means a small house but if you call your grandmother ‘mi abuelita’ it’s not because she’s small but because she’s dear to you. If you ask someone to wait ‘un momentito’ it’s because you want to sound friendly, and if you call someone ‘gordito’ it’s because they’re chubby rather than obese.
Similarly with augmentatives – ‘grandote’ just means very big, but a ‘cabezazo’ is a header (as in, of the ball) or a head butt, and a ‘perrazo’ is a big and/or a mean dog.
So given that you’re already messing about with words to convey things like affection, maybe it’s only natural to mess around with what you call people by using nicknames (which a lot of the time is an affectionate thing to do).
A third possible answer to this question is that maybe nicknames are necessary in Argentina for identifying people due to the fact that there’s less diversity in first names, and hence more pairs of people with the same first name among groups of friends and associates.
It seems to be anecdotally the case that first names are less diverse here than in other countries (think of all the Juans), and it also makes sense given that anyone naming a baby in Argentina must choose from a list of pre-approved names deemed sufficiently Argentine by the government.
Well. Whatever the reason may be, I personally find the extreme fondness for nicknames here highly endearing, and I dream of the day that I get one of my own…as long as it’s not gordito!