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When I was studying Spanish in college the teacher went around the room asking our names and how we had learned the language up to that point. When it came to be my turn I responded with, "Soy Mateo..." The teacher (a Chilean) began to giggle and said that my name meant something along the lines of "head of the class" or "smarty pants."

Does anyone know the origin of this phrase? Why Mateo?

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Here in Chile, mateo / matea means someone who studies very often, someone diligent who always does his homework at school or college.

According to "Voces de origen lunfardo en el registro festivo del diario chileno La Cuarta" 1 , its origin comes from the word mate which means head:

mate  → head

mateo  → someone who uses his head

The word mate could have its origin from the Quechua máti which means something like "little pumpkin" (and could probably be related —in a figurative sense— to the human head because of its form).


Do not confuse the many meanings of word mate here in South America (the regions where they are used have been taken from RAE):

  • (coloq. Arg., Bol., Chile y Ur.) "human head"
  • (Arg., Bol., Chile y Ur. ) "the recipient where the infusion called yerba mate is served/poured"
  • (coloq. Arg., Bol. y Ur.) "judge", "talent", "ability".
  • (Bol. y Perú.) "infusion" or "tea"

1.- Abelardo San Martín Núñez: "Voces de origen lunfardo en el registro festivo del diario chileno La Cuarta", pp 134-135.

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Wow! Great answer! –  Mateo Jan 26 '12 at 0:26
1  
In Argentina (Buenos Aires) that meaning is unknown. As personal name, Mateo is quite popular today here. And there is another one (rather limited, almost extinct) es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mateo. –  leonbloy Jan 26 '12 at 13:31
    
It could be interesting to know if RAE is right about the regions where these meanings are used. Before writing this answer I thought that mateo was only used in Chile. In the case of Argentina, perhaps it's used in Cuyo and the northern Argentina (because of the alleged Quechua origin of the word). –  Nicolás Jan 26 '12 at 14:30

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