TT: Silly Names

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!

You think the world would have had enough...

You think the world would have had enough…

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!

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8 Responses to “TT: Silly Names”

  1. John Michael Poling Says:

    To add to the fun here, I have a friend who shares the same first name, John, and to avoid any confusion, he was to be called Big John (for he was nearly a foot shorter than me and very thin) and I was to be Little John, just like in many Robin Hood tales. Unfortunately, I had another friend, Cynthia, who was from Mexico, and she was utterly confused by why the literal, little John was called Big and my myself Little. We tried explaining, but she refused and said it made no sense. So in this rather odd case for us, the little is Little John and I am Big John…Just thought I would share! Love your blogs, Jane!

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    It’s not just electricians who get called “Sparky.” A grad student I knew had a lab fire in front of students in a lab (something about heating a beaker of pure ethanol directly on a heater, not in a water bath), and he became Sparky for the rest of his grad school experience. Given that he drank at least a liter of coffee per day, it suited his personality too, unfortunately for him.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    I sometimes think that names are the wildest and wooliest aspect of etymology.

    I have no doubt that Maryann, as Jane has encountered it, is a new back-formation from Mary Ann. Which is interesting considering how common Marianne and its variants are as a European name, along with forms like Marie-Anne or Maria Anna, which, AFAIK, really are compounds of Mary and Anne. The ironic thing is that the Semitic original is Maryam, which looks as if it should be the parent of all of them. In fact, looking at all that, I wonder if the notion that Mary’s mother was named Anne doesn’t derive from some Greek’s confusion over the original name, since it seems there’s no canonical source for it.

  4. Sally Says:

    My slang dictionary, which is British-based (Partridge’s, as I recall) has many entries saying something to the effect of “____: inevitable nickname of anyone surnamed ___”, generally with no explanation of why it’s inevitable.

    Also, in exploring hobo namesI found a fair number of examples where the name was descriptive (i.e. ‘Blink’ or ‘Blinky’ for someone who’d lost an eye) but also the cross-naming John talks about (naming a tall person ‘Shorty’).

    I think ‘Bud’ and ‘Buddy’ tend to be a form of ‘Junior’, like Chip. Though I have to say I never understood the significance of ‘Chip’ before.

    (As for myself, I hate having my name shortened. ‘Sally’ isn’t short enough to begin with? But worse are the songs that I get greeted with. Are there no heroic, smart Sallys celebrated in song? Apparently not.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      At least you’re not saddled with “plain Jane.”

      • Sally Says:

        True, Jane, and the nickname is hardly deserved. Though I can’t say (re the songs, at least) that the reputation of Sallys as–to borrow a term from the slang dictionary–round-heeled is very complimentary either…

  5. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Interesting insights, and I shall add my own experiences because… you know what, I don’t even know.

    My brother had the same problem as James. But it was solved pretty soon after birth. Both he and my dad share the name Michael. No long after my brother was born, my parents decided my dad would be called Mike. I don’t know anyone who knows my dad that calls him anything else anymore. Though when we get into things of legal or contractual statue (I.E. cell phone bills), we have to include the full legal name. Thank goodness for middle names.

    Also, I my will often call my older brothers “big brother” and “biggest brother” (Guess which goes to which. 😀 ). I don’t know if they know it, but to me, it’s my way of expressing great affection. In the same spirit, I sometimes call my aunt Rochelle Auntie R (inspired by Wizard of Oz…. sort of), though not as much since she doesn’t care for it as much.

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