‘James’ and ‘Diego’ May Share Common Origin

Both names connected with key Biblical character

Downtown San Diego, Calif.
Downtown San Diego, Calif.

Davel5957 / Getty Images

What sense does it make that Diego is the Spanish equivalent of the name James? That Robert is the same as Roberto in Spanish makes sense, as does María being Mary. But Diego and "James" don't seem at all alike.

Names Diego and James Trace Back to Hebrew

The short explanation is that languages change over time, and if we trace the names of Diego and James as far back as we can, we end up with the Hebrew name of Ya'akov back into the days well before the Common or Christian Era. That name changed in several directions before arriving into the modern Spanish and English equivalents. In fact, both Spanish and English have several variations of that old Hebrew name, of which James and Diego are the most common, so technically there are several ways you could translate those names from one language to another.

As you might be able to guess if you're familiar with the characters of the Bible, Ya'akov was the name given to a grandson of Abraham, a name given in modern English and Spanish Bibles as Jacob. That name itself has an interesting origin: Ya'akov, which may have meant "may he protect" ("he" referring to Yahweh, the God of Israel), appears to be a word play on the Hebrew for "heel." According to the book of Genesis, Jacob was holding the heel of his twin brother Esau when the two were born.

The name Ya'acov became Iakobos in Greek. If you keep in mind that in some languages the sounds of b and v are similar (in modern Spanish they're identical), the Hebrew and Greek versions of the name are close to identical. By the time the Greek Iakobos became Latin it had turned into Iacobus and then Iacomus. The big change came as some varieties of Latin morphed into French, where Iacomus was shortened to Gemmes. The English James is derived from that French version.

The etymological change in Spanish is not as well understood, and authorities differ on the details. What appears likely was that the Iacomus became shortened to Iaco and then Iago. Some authorities say that Iago became lengthened to Tiago and then Diego. Others say the phrase Sant Iaco (sant is an old form of "saint") turned into Santiago, which was then improperly divided by some speakers into San Tiago, leaving the name of Tiago, which morphed into Diego.

On the other hand, some authorities say that the Spanish name Diego was derived from the Latin name Didacus, meaning "instructed." The Latin Didacus in turn came from the Greek didache, which is related to a few English words such as "didactic." If those authorities are correct, the similarity between Santiago and San Diego is a matter of coincidence, not etymology. There are also authorities who combine theories, saying that while Diego was derived from the old Hebrew name, it was influenced by Didacus.

Other Variations of the Names

In any case, Santiago is recognized as a name of its own today, and the New Testament book known as James in English goes according to the name of Santiago in Spanish.That same book is known today as Jacques in French and Jakobus in German, making the etymological link to the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible name more clear.

So while it can be said (depending on which theory you believe) that Diego can be translated to English as James, it can also be seen as the equivalent of Jacob, Jake, and Jim. And in reverse, James can be translated to Spanish not only as Diego, but also as Iago, Jacobo, and Santiago.

Also, these days it isn't unusual for the Spanish name Jaime to be used as a translation of James. Jaime is a name of Iberian origin that various sources indicate is connected with James, although its etymology is unclear.

Among the famous people named Diego are Diego Velázquez, a 17th-century Spanish painter; Diego Martín, a Spanish actor; former Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona; Diego Rivera, a 20th-century Mexican artist; Mexican actor Diego Luna; Mexican actor Diego Boneta; and 16th-century Jesuit priest Diego Laynez.

Key Takeaways

  • A common explanation of the origin of the Spanish name Diego is that it is derived from the Hebrew name Ya'acov, which is also the source of English names including Jacob and James.
  • An alternative theory is that Diego came indirectly from the Greek didache, whose meaning is related to learning.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "‘James’ and ‘Diego’ May Share Common Origin." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/james-and-diego-common-origin-3079192. Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). ‘James’ and ‘Diego’ May Share Common Origin. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/james-and-diego-common-origin-3079192 Erichsen, Gerald. "‘James’ and ‘Diego’ May Share Common Origin." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/james-and-diego-common-origin-3079192 (accessed May 28, 2023).