Ask Me About: How do you pronounce Mexico?

“Remarks like that were embedded in my head and took up precious space that should have been occupied with other things but wasn’t.” – Ray Midge, The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

One of the things I enjoy about dramaturgy (and writing!) is becoming a temporary expert on all kinds of unexpected topics. And once I learn those things, I want to share them! “Ask Me About” is a continuing series of posts about trivia and knowledge I pick up in the course of rehearsals and research.


The actor asked: “I know ‘Mexico’ used to be pronounced ‘Meshiko.’ Can you find out anything about when and why that changed?”

¡Claro que sí!

The Nahuatl (Aztec) name Mēxihco pronounced “meSHEE’ko” (/meːˈʃiʔko/). This was transliterated by Spanish explorers as “Mexico” — in Medieval Spanish, the letter “x” represented the “sh” sound.

Aztec Ictapa alphabet.

By the end of the 15th century, the letters “j” and “x” were both used to represent the “zh” sound in Spanish (like the “g” in “genre” or the “si” in “vision”). However, in the 16th century, the usage evolved so that “j” and “x” represented the sound “ch” as in “loch”. (The voiceless velar fricative, if you’re fancy: [x].) So the name of the country was spelled both “Mexico” and “Mejico.”

In the 1700s, the Real Academia Español established that “j” should represent the “ch/[x]” sound, and “x” should represent the “ks” sound (explicar, extraño). Due to the multiple spellings of Mexico/Mejico and other place names (Texas/Tejas, Oaxaca/Oajaca), the letter “x” continued and continues to be used to represent the “ch/[x]” sound in some words in Mexico, even though “x” in Spanish words should be pronounced “ks.”

So the progression went:

meSHEEko
Mezhiko
Mehhiko

The Real Academia Español has the whole evolution of the letter “x” — it’s written in Spanish, but Google Translate will do an okay job translating to English.

Desturnell Mexico.tif

Doing things with words

Cotton candy at the bride and groom’s table.

Today my cousin Luke married his girlfriend Lauren.

Luke is about ten years older than me, which either makes him the oldest of my generation of cousins or one of the youngest of the previous generation. (My mom comes from a family of seven kids, and the kids of her and her siblings break down into roughly two groups, pre-1980 and post-1980, give or take a couple years. I have a metric ton of cousins on my mom’s side.) Growing up, we visited Mom’s side of the family every summer, and my primary playmates were Luke and his three younger siblings, plus the five kids of my mom’s two younger sisters. When I was really little, like five, I couldn’t say the letter L, so I called my cousin Yook; it was with great pride that I finally learned to say his name properly. One of my favorite songs of my childhood was one Luke wrote, a darkly comedic country-tinged ballad about the mutant one-eyed frog they found in their swimming hold one year.

Luke’s not the first of my cousins to get married, but this was the first time I got to attend one of my cousins’ weddings. It was a very different experience than the last wedding I attended last year, which was between a Catholic Shakespearean actress and a Jewish stand-up comedian, officiated by a rabbi and priest whose ceremonial speeches resembled comedy club patter. This was a far more reverent wedding, performed in the open air on a spectacularly cloudless day in the mountains around Lake Tahoe — “God’s cathedral,” as the minister said.

So I got to thinking about the strangeness — the mysticism — of a wedding. Not of a marriage, though I’m sure there are strange mystical elements of that too. What I’m qualified to talk about, though, is performance, the power of symbol and word.

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