Mexican X-plainer: Peines & Pendejos

David Bowles
Jun 9 · 8 min read

My wife has 3 pet names for me: “Güero, “Amor,” and “PENDEJO.”

I’d say the last one is her favorite, given how often she uses it, heh.

If you don’t speak Mexican Spanish, you may not get the joke. “Pendejo” has quite a few meanings, but the most common in Mexico is “dumb-ass,” only slightly stronger and with interesting nuances.

Want to know its origin? Okay!

It comes from the Latin “pectiniculus” (diminutive of “pecten”).

“Wait, what? How? And what did the Latin word mean?”

Patience, friends. Let’s take it step by step. This article? It’s going to be long. Grab a cup of coffee.

Here we go!

Remember, Vulgar Latin gave rise to the Romance languages. As the variety spoken in one spot of the Iberian Peninsula began to evolve into Castilian, words with an internal –ct– (/kt/) combination went through an interesting evolution. The /k/ sound first became a “yod,” a sound often represented by the letters “y” or “i,” but written /j/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). As a result, the following “t” was palatalized (drawn up toward the palate of the mouth), become /tʃ/ (“ch”).

/kt/ -> /jt/ -> /tʃ/

Here’s the progression of three example words, going from Classical Latin to early and then late Vulgar Latin and finally Spanish.

noctem -> nocte -> *noite -> noche

pectus -> pectu -> *peitu -> pecho

tēctum -> tectu -> techo

Now let’s turn to the Latin noun “pecten” (accusative “pectinem”), from Proto-Indo-European *peḱten-s, based on the root *peḱ- (“pluck”). In Latin it first meant “comb” and was accompanied by the verb “pectere” or “to comb.”

Over time, “pecten” began to be used for a weaver’s comb and “pectere” to card wool (in a loom), to the point that the participial adjective “pexus” came to mean “wooly.” As a result, “pecten” became associated with wool, and then by metaphorical extension with … human pubic hair.

In fact, in English, the scientific term “pecten” can either mean a comb-like structure in biological organisms (like a scallop’s shell) or the actual pubic bone.

Vulgar Latin dropped most noun cases except the accusative. Instead of “pectem,” the form “pectinem” was used. Like most accusatives, “pectinem” dropped the –m. The unstressed internal “i” was lost as well. Then the “c” became a yod. However, since there’s a “n” after the “t,” palatization couldn’t occur. Instead, the “t” disappeared, giving us “peine,” the Spanish word for “comb.”

Here’s that development.

pectine -> pectne -> peitne -> peine

I can almost hear some of you thinking, “That’s not ‘pendejo,’ David. I’m waiting. Déjate de pendejadas.”

I’m going, I’m going!

Okay, “-culus” was a diminutive suffix in Latin (a variation on -lus). Added to “pecten,” it gave rise to “pectiniculus” (small comb / short pubic hair). To understand how we went from that word to “pendejo,” we must learn another linguistic process.

Metathesis. This is when a consonant drifts from one syllable to another (usually neighboring) one. If you speak American English, you’ll have noticed a lot of people doing the following:

asterisk (*): pronounced as “as-ter-iks” cavalry: pronounced as “calvary” introduce: pronounced as “in-ter-duce” relevant: pronounced as “rev-e-lent” prescription: pronounced as “per-scrip-tion”

That’s metathesis.

As it evolved, Vulgar Latin experienced metathesis a lot, even interchanging sounds from syllables that didn’t neighbor each other. We call that “nonadjacent” or “long-distance metathesis.”

Consequently, Latin “peRicuLum” gave us Spanish “peLigRo” (“danger”) and “caTēnātum” gave us “canDado” (“padlock”). Metathesis also helped give us “pendejo” in its present form.

With “pectiniculus,” the first “c” and “i” were lost. Then, in the next stage, the first “u” was dropped, and the “t” moved through metathesis so that it was after the “n.” That “cl” cluster palatalized into “j” (originally pronounced “zh” or /ʒ/ … the “z” in “azure”). And the “t” became voiced into /d/ while the tongue’s position when pronouncing “i” lowered a bit, making it an “e.”

pectiniculus -> *petniculu -> *penticlu -> pendejo

(A similar evolution gave Portuguese the word “pentelho,” which at present means “annoying” and “pubic hair.”)

As I’ve discussed in my Mexican X series, that “zh” or /ʒ/ sound used for the letter “j” eventually became a “sh” /ʃ/ and finally a hard, aspirated “h” /x/.

(The above has drawn from Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, by Swiss philologist Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke, based on the documented use of the Latin words by Pliny and Juvenal.)

“Pendejo” continued to mean “pubic hair” well into the 16th century. Sebastián de Horozco (born in Toledo in 1510), a poet and playwright of the Spanish Golden Age, wrote a series of poems between a woman and two castrati. In this one, she asks Lucas Sánchez “whether any pubic hair has sprouted / on either you or Montemayor.”

Over the next couple of centuries, however, we see some evidence of semantic drift. Russian philologist Yakov Malkiel conjectured that it might have begun with the social scolding of less than manly young men: “Haven’t your pubes started to grow?”

Is there evidence of this equating of manliness and courage? A Spanish-French dictionary from the early 18th century defines “pendejo” as “coward” (as well as “the upper part of the shameful parts,” perhaps meaning the mons pubis). The dictionary also gives us “pendejería,” meaning “cowardice.”

1705 Diccionario nuevo de las lenguas española y francesa

A century later, we get Spanish definitions of French terms that make it clear: in addition to “coward,” the word “pendejo” now means “lazy.”

From the 1838 Diccionario francés-español y español-francés

A 19th-century Spanish-Catalan dictionary defines “pendejo” as “hair of the groin; cowardly man, chicken, coward.”

1853 Diccionario manual, ó, Vocabulario completo de las lenguas castellana-catalana

When defining “coward” for English speakers, the editors of the 1858 A Pronouncing Dictionary of the Spanish and English Languages made sure to tell folks that “pendejo” was a vulgar way of saying it. (Note that the pronunciation guide is horribly wrong.)

There’s an alternate theory as to how “pubic hair” become “coward”? The word’s entry in Roque Barcia’s influential Primer diccionario general etimológico de la lengua española (published in 4 volumes between 1880 and 1883) says of the word (aside from giving the “pubic hair” and “coward” glosses):

“An obscene and clumsy term used by commoners to refer to the private parts of a woman, always accompanied by the definite article — THE PENDEJO.”

That’s right. Calling a man “pendejo” meant calling him a “pussy.”

So predictably macho and stupid.

Other meanings arose. By 1910, the Diccionario enciclopedico hispano-americano de literatura, ciencias y artes says that a pendejo is a “boy of a young age who tries to act older.” This meaning endures in Argentina and Uruguay, where it still means “kid” or “punk.”

In the 1930s and 40s, many novels and short stories start using the phrase “hacer[se el] pendejo,” meaning either to play to fool [pretend to be innocent like a young boy] or to pull the wool over someone else’s eyes.

Court records from around this time show that “pendejo” was beginning to be understood as the opposite of a “real man” (a “chingón” or whatever), and calling someone “pendejo” might get your ass cut up by a machete!

The word further shifts into “someone who naively tries to help others,” someone who doesn’t understand the game of life, who isn’t looking out for number one, who isn’t a chingón, as in this passage from the 1930 Centón epistolario de Domingo del Monte (by Domingo Figarola-Caneda):

“Qué haré? Ya lo sé yo; pues no soy ningún pendejo que me deje crucificar por redimir al género humano.”

(What will I do? I already know, because I’m no pendejo who lets himself get crucified to redeem the human race.)

Being seen as a pendejo, having people take advantage of your naivete and lack of manliness, becomes anathema. In the 1940s we can have passages like this:

“How did they fool me?”

“They made you their pendejo, buddy. They figured you for a newbie.”

This disgust with the naive pushover is prevalent throughout Latin America. The Refranero panameño: contribución a la paremiología hispanoamericana (compiled by Luisita Aguilera in 1955) has a bunch of insulting songs and sayings about the poor “pendejo.”

My “favorite” is this one:

The pendejo won’t go to heaven because he gets fucked over here and up there, too.

What a twisted view of a soft man’s eternal existence.

That pretty much brings us to the present in Mexico, where 1) you can be a pendejo if you’re not chingón enough, looking out for number one, or 2) you can be a pendejo because you’re generally a dumb-ass, lacking basic common sense about stuff.

This means that a non-aggressive, soft-hearted, intellectual guy will be seen as a pendejo by lots of supposed “alpha” males, but … that sweeter man will see all of THOSE IGNORANT FOOLS as the true pendejos.

Basically, all men are pendejos.

My wife would agree.

David Bowles

Written by

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.