muchacho

Enough English speakers recognize and even use the Spanish word muchacho for it to have made its way into various English dictionaries, including the Merriam-Webster®, where it is defined as ‘a male servant’ and ‘a young man,’ with both of those usages marked ‘chiefly Southwest.’ The ‘servant’ sense seems to have been more common in English in times gone by, and in parts of the “Southwest” not envisioned in Merriam-Webster, namely the Philippines after the United States appropriated it from Spain in 1898. For example, James Henderson Blount wrote in The American Occupation of the Philippines, 1898-1912:

You are hardly respectable in the Philippines if you do not have a muchacho. Muchacho, in Spanish, means the same as garçon in French, or valet in English. But muchachos are as thick as cigarettes in the Philippines. And you can hire one for about $5 a month. To resolve not to have a muchacho in the Philippines would be like resolving at home never to have your shoes shined, or your clothes pressed. It would be contrary to the universal custom of the country, and would therefore be “impossible.” You have not been long in the Philippines before you get tired of telling applicants for the position of muchacho that you do not want one, and, benumbed by the universal custom, you accept the last applicant. You must figure on a muchacho as one of your “fixed charges.” Count then an extra $50 annual necessary expense that you would not have at home. If you do not succumb to the muchacho custom, you will get rid of the $50 in other ways fairly classifiable as necessary current expenses.

The original form of muchacho in Spanish was mochacho, a fact that has led etymologists to believe that the word was likely based on mocho, which means ‘cropped, shorn, lopped off.’ The semantics seem strange, but apparently in southern Europe in the 1200s it was the custom to cut a boy’s hair very short, and the mocho that described such short hair grew into the mochacho that included the rest of the boy beneath the cropped hair. As for mocho, its origin is uncertain, with some scholars tracing it back to Latin mutilus, which meant the same as our borrowed mutilado/mutilated.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lexiekahn
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 17:05:08

    I wondered whether the word “mozo,” also meaning a young man or servant, could come from “mocho” too. According to Etimologias de Chile, http://etimologias.dechile.net/?mocho it may.

    Reply

  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Jul 26, 2011 @ 17:16:04

    Guido Gómez de Silva thinks that mozo is probably related to Old Spanish mochacho, but he also wonders if the word could have come from the Latin musteus that meant ‘having to do with new wine.’

    Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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