A while ago, I ran into Paul Nunes. As I learned many others had also done, I asked him about the pronunciation of his last name.
“You’re doing the same thing everybody is doing and you are making the same mistake,” Nunes chided, hardly bothering to hide his annoyance.
What rankled him was my suggestion that Devin Nunes, the California congressman with whom Paul Nunes shares a last name, pronounces their shared patronymic correctly, an assumption that suggests that Paul Nunes, a Rochester commercial litigator, uses an anglicized version of Nunes, which traces to Portugal.
A Fairport resident and longtime partner with Underberg & Kessler, Nunes has many local friends and acquaintances. He is well known in area legal circles. He also is familiar to many area musicians as a guitarist, pianist and children’s songwriter and singer who performs professionally under the name Vincent, which is his middle name.
One of President Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters, Devin Nunes, a dairy farmer by profession, is most recently in the news for filing a $250 million lawsuit against Twitter.
Until Democrats took control of the House of Representatives after the November election, Devin Nunes chaired the House Intelligence Committee. In that capacity, the California Republican made vigorous attempts to blunt Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into Trump’s alleged Russia ties, often by trying to turn the tables with claims that the motives of Mueller and his team, not Trump, are impure, citing alleged anti-Trump “deep state” conspiracies in the Justice Department and FBI.
Nunes’ recent court action accuses Twitter of “shadow banning” conservatives and, by allowing those who mock Trump supporters to tweet their disdain, defaming Trump backers including Nunes. The lawsuit specifically cites parties using the Twitter handles @DevinNunesMom and @DevinNunesCow for allegedly defaming his and his mother’s character. Trump has tweeted his approval.
Paul Nunes’ political sympathies do not lie with Devin Nunes. But perhaps more than their political differences, what most gets under Paul Nunes’ skin is the way Devin Nunes pronounces the Nunes name.
Until recently, no one ever questioned the way he said his own name. Now everybody does. “It happens at least once a week, sometimes more,” Nunes laments.
As Nunes sees it, the question implies that he would try to hide or downplay his Portuguese heritage, an assertion Nunes so vehemently denied to me that I was moved to ask him: “So were you born in the United States?”
“Barely,” Nunes shot back before backtracking that “I was born here. But I am 100 percent Portuguese and I am proud of it.”
The correct pronunciation of the Nunes name?
It is the way Paul Nunes has always said it, the same way his father, who originally hailed from the Azores, a North Atlantic archipelago that is an autonomous region of Portugal, and his mother, who grew up speaking Portuguese, taught him to say it.
“It’s noons,” he insists. “That is how it’s pronounced in Portuguese,” not the way Devin Nunes says it, new-ness, sort of but not quite like the Spanish name Nunez.
The Nunes and Nunez names are in fact related as are Spanish and Portuguese, languages that despite their close cousinhood have distinct and longstanding differences, especially on the pronunciation front.
Spoken by residents of countries that share the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish and Portuguese are descendants of Latin as it was spoken by Romans who occupied Iberia after defeating Carthage in the Second Punic War in 201 B.C. But by the 1200s, the Roman Empire was long gone and Spanish and Portuguese had taken different turns.
Nunes and Nunez are both patronymics meaning son of Nuno. But for the past 800 years or so Nunes has been pronounced as he and his family say it, not the way Devin Nunes does, Paul Nunes insists.
Similarly, he adds by way of amplification, the Portuguese name Lopes, is properly pronounced as it would be in English as a single syllable and not like the Spanish Lopez. The same goes for the Portuguese name Rodrigues, which is pronounced rod-reegs and not like the Spanish name Rodriguez.
Devin Nunes’ blatant disregard for his own name’s proper pronunciation amounts to a denial of its Portuguese roots, Paul Nunes believes. And it’s not just him. That alleged disregard has riled the entire Portuguese community, or at least that portion of the Portuguese community represented by his 88-year-old mother, Lucilia Nunes, and her friends and relations in the Ludlow, Mass., area, where Paul Nunes was raised.
People of Portuguese descent make up some 21 percent of Ludlow’s 21,000 residents. According to reports by WWLP Channel 22 News, Ludlow’s Our Lady of Fatima church’s annual Portuguese Festa has attracted as many as 200,000 visitors from Western Massachusetts and elsewhere. Many but not all are of Portuguese descent.
To get a sense of controversy Devin Nunes has stirred among Portuguese Americans, “you ought to talk to my mother,” Paul Nunes advised me.
Reached in New Hampshire where she was visiting her daughter, Lucilia Nunes had a lot to say. As the first order of business, she wanted make clear that her name is pronounced noons, not new-ness or Nunez.
“It does rather aggravate me when people tell me how to pronounce my name,” she said. “If people call me Nunez, I correct them. I’m not Spanish, I tell them. I’m Portuguese.”
Echoing her son, she observed: “Only in the last two years, after a lifetime of never having to explain my name, am I getting questions. It’s very odd.”
Born in the United States to immigrant parents who spoke to her only in Portuguese, Lucilia Nunes spoke Portuguese before she spoke English. She picked up English when she started school.
Attending college some 29 years after she graduated from high school, she became a teacher of English as a second language.
“I got the job because I knew Portuguese,” she said. “A lot of the students spoke Portuguese, but we had speakers of many other languages.”
She and most of her friends in the Western Massachusetts Portuguese community agree: Devin Nunes’ apparently deliberate mispronunciation of the Nunes name is a disgrace, an insult to Portuguese speakers everywhere.
Is the congressman perhaps innocently unaware of his name’s proper pronunciation?
Lucilia Nunes doubts it.
“He does it to sound Spanish,” she asserted, citing Nunes’ Central California congressional district’s considerable percentage of Hispanic voters. “It’s dishonest.”
Paul Nunes echoes his mother’s judgment. Devin Nunes, he believes, is far too ready to sell his ethnic heritage short to pick up a few votes.
Neither Devin Nunes nor any Nunes staffer replied to my emailed query as to what the congressman believes is the proper pronunciation of his name. The email query also asked for conformation or denial of Nunes’ Portuguese heritage. Again, no response.
To be clear, neither Paul nor Lucilia Nunes think much of Devin Nunes’ politics.
While Trump supporters view Nunes as a hero bravely exposing a deep state plot to unfairly oust Trump, most Democrats and even some Republicans see the congressman’s attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation as red herrings at best and at worst as baseless calumnies.
Lucilia Nunes falls squarely on the side of Devin Nunes’ critics. Declaring herself a proud daughter of Depression-era Roosevelt Democrats, she speaks as proudly of her parents’ patriotism as she does disparagingly of what she sees as Devin Nunes’ dishonesty.
Like mother, like son. Asked to assess his namesake’s character, Paul Nunes hesitates not at all.
“Devin Nunes?” replies Paul Nunes. “He’s a weasel.”