Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, died on Sunday at the age of 91; the debate over how to pronounce his name lives on. According to the New York Times, the name is “PEE-noh-shay,” while the BBC recommends “PIN-uh-shay.” On March 11, 1998, NPR made the switch from “pin-oh-SHAY” to “pin-oh-SHET.” (Listen to the host of All Things Considered stumble over it.) Slate has twice tried to get to the bottom of this question: Eight years ago we went with “pee-no-CHAY” but then reversed course last year with “pin-oh-CHET.” So, which is it?
All of the above. There’s no single correct pronunciation for the name in Chile. The first two syllables don’t change too much, and should be something between “pin-oh” and “pee-no.” But the last syllable is up for grabs: Some Chileans go with “shay,” others “chay,” and still others “chet.”
The confusion starts with the ch sound, which can serve as a marker of social class in Chilean Spanish. In educated speech, the Spanish ch is similar to the English pronunciation, as in the word chess. But popular dialect turns the ch into something more like sh. A high-class Chilean would probably pronounce the country’s name as “chee-lay,” while someone with less status might say “shee-lay.” Likewise, the same two people might describe the ex-dictator as “pee-no-chay” and “pee-no-shay.” (Pinochet himself was known for speaking in a rough, working-class style. Listen to him pronounce Chile with an sh, about 24 seconds into this video.)
It gets more complicated with the final t. As a general rule, the whole syllable—”chet”—should be spoken aloud. But in casual conversation, Chileans tend to drop the final sound. Someone who pronounced Pinochet as “pee-no-chet” would be correct, but he’d also be speaking in a formal (and perhaps a bit uppity) tone. On the other hand, some Chileans are inclined to use the French pronunciation of Pinochet, since the name comes from the Brittany region of France. * In that case, they’d drop the t and go back to “pee-no-shay” or “pee-no-chay.”
Finally, there are those who forgo the other options in favor of the somewhat-derogatory nickname “Pinocho.” When graffiti artists scrawl Pinochet’s name, they sometimes render it as “Pin” alongside the number eight, or “ocho” in Spanish. Thus, “Pinocho.”
Chileans point out that however you say the name, you’re unlikely to be corrected. (“Pinocho” might be the exception here.) It wouldn’t be awkward for two people to have a long discussion about the ex-dictator using two different pronunciations.
How did Pinochet himself say it? Three different sources told the Explainer they knew or remembered how the general or his family pronounced the name. And they gave three conflicting answers. You can hear Pinochet utter his own name two seconds into this video clip from 1980—it sounds a lot like “pee-no-chay.” Update, Jan. 16, 2007: Pinochet’s daughter Lucia seems to use the same pronunciation at the end of this video clip. If you’ve come across another audio or video clip in which Pinochet or a member of his family pronounces the name, please send it to the Explainer.
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Explainer thanks Sara Lipka of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Correction, Dec. 18, 2006: The original version of this piece described Augusto Pinochet’s name as being of French Basque origin. In fact, Pinochet’s ancestors came from the Brittany region of France. (Return to the corrected sentence.)