Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back and consider how magic fits into the worlds of fiction – and reality. Then come and join me and Alan as we expand our inspection of nicknames into those that are silly – and just plain weird!
JANE: Last week when we chatted about nicknames, we focused on those that are essentially a shortening or diminutive of a longer name – like “Al” for Alan or “Janie” for Jane. Later, I got to thinking about the British tradition of soundly weird nicknames. When I read novels by P. G. Wodehouse, I’m always coming across characters with silly names like “Bingo” Little; “Catsmeat” Potter-Purbright… Are these for “real” or did Wodehouse just make this up.
ALAN: Wodehouse was spot on with those silly names. It’s a typical affectation of the upper classes about which he was writing, but it’s not restricted to them. I was at school with someone called Donald Horsfall. Almost from the moment of his birth, he was known as Dosky (for no readily discernible reason), and he’s still called that by his friends today.
JANE: I’m curious. Is “Dosky” restricted to friends he went to school with or do friends made later in life still use it.
You see, I have a friend who is called “Chip” – which is a childhood nickname that extended into early adulthood. Those of us who met him through someone he knew then call him Chip, but people he works with call him by his given name, which is Royce.
ALAN: I think the situation with Dosky is the same as with your friend Chip.
If you get saddled with a nickname, there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it being used. People will always respect your wishes about shortening (or not shortening) your forename but they will pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to your preferences for your nickname. And it’s not always clear how nicknames arise in the first place.
They may be somehow associated with your place of birth. People of Scottish origin are often called Jock and Welshmen are often called Taffy. Anybody whose surname is Murphy will invariably be given the nickname Spud – Murphy is archetypally Irish and the Irish are popularly presumed to live on potatoes (spuds) and Guinness.
Nicknames may also be associated with a profession. An electrician, for example, will often referred to as Sparky.
JANE: We don’t have the same regional nicknames – probably because we’re a more fluid culture and we all at least pretend to speak the same language, whereas Scotland, Ireland, and Wales all had their own original languages.
ALAN: Yes – I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that had something to do with it.
But I think the most amusing common British nickname is Nobby – you can practically guarantee that any male with the surname Clark (or Clarke) will be nicknamed Nobby. One possible explanation for this is that clerks in the City of London used to wear a special type of bowler hat known as a Nobby Hat. There are other possible explanations as well. And yes, “clerk” is pronounced “clark.”
JANE: Have you ever had a nickname? I haven’t, really, and felt a bit wistful about it when I was younger.
ALAN: There was a brief period when I had the nickname Lobelet, for rather unsavoury reasons that I prefer not to go into.
JANE: Ah… Maybe one of our British speakers will translate for me. <evil grin>
ALAN: And these days I’m often referred to as the Bearded Triffid, a nickname given to me in jest by an old friend who was teasing me about my love of science fiction. I publish a web page under that name and on more than one occasion total strangers attending my training courses have said, “Oh! You’re the Bearded Triffid!” when I introduce myself to the class. I rather enjoy that…
JANE: Did you know that Queen Elizabeth is apparently called Lilybet by her immediate family…
ALAN: Ah! Now that’s something different again. That’s a family name, sometimes called a pet name. It’s quite common, but use of it is restricted to immediate family members only. Nobody else is allowed to use it. To my parents, I was always Foppen, and my grandfather called me Jumbo. My godson Jamie is often called Froglet by his parents.
JANE: Jamie? Gottcha! Another abbreviated name!
ALAN: That’s pragmatism rather than anything else. Jamie was certainly christened James, but his father is also James and it soon became apparent that they needed a method of distinguishing between each other. When an icy female voice calls out “James! Come here at once!”, it is vital that they know exactly which one of them is in trouble. And since James (the father) is always James and never Jamie, it was clear what they had to do…
JANE: You make me laugh! Same thing happened in my husband’s family – three generations of “James.” When I met my husband, he was commonly called “Jim” by his friends, so that’s what I called him. I was rather startled when I first visited his family to hear him called “Jimmy” – or sometimes “James.” No one there seems to have used “Jamie.”
We have a lot of nicknames that indicate someone who has the same name as a parent: Junior and Chip are both fairly common, although not as much these days. When I was a kid, there was a boy called “Trip” because he was the third.
Do you do that?
ALAN: No. Never.
JANE: We also have nicknames – usually more family pet names – that indicate relationship. We have a good friend who almost always calls his sister – even in conversation – “Sis” rather than by her given name (Mary). Jim has an uncle called “Buddy.” “Buddy” or “Bud” are still affectionate nicknames, especially in the South.
ALAN: That’s almost unheard of here as well. I have a friend who calls his young son “Buddy,” but that’s the only time I’ve ever come across it.
JANE: We also have nicknames based on coloration or other physical characteristics – although these seem to be dying out. My mom had three red-haired sisters (she’s a brunette) and she tells how her mom used “Red” as a generic for all her daughters.
Not long ago, Freckles, Curly, Blondie, and Blackie were routine.
ALAN: We almost never do that, either.
JANE: Probably as an oddity of growing up Catholic and almost every family having at least one “Mary” was that compounds were common: Mary Ann, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Ellen, Mary Louise… Some of these compounds then became names in their own right, so you have Maryann, Maryjo, Marylou, Marybeth.
A girl I grew up with was commonly called “Mary Teresa.” Later, this was shortened to “Mary-T.” Later still, she informed everyone that violence would ensue if she was called anything but simply “Mary.” I offer this as evidence that Americans do not always shorten names. Often, they lengthen them!
ALAN: Ah! That explains a lot. I always wondered about the odd compound names I kept finding in American novels. Now it makes sense.
JANE: Well… As much as anything does!