From Aliases and Handles to Sobriquets and Zambonis: Nicknames, Parkinson’s, Gardens and More
Caution: This blog post is rated 18A suitable for viewing by persons 18 years of age and older. May contain coarse language and mature themes.
Caveat: As always, this blog is based on real situations with real people. Be aware though that some accounts herein may be altered or embellished for effect and names changed to maintain confidentiality.
For some time now and for some odd reason unbeknownst (a word I rarely use) to me, I have been thinking about nicknames. Nicknames are inherently interesting as they often have a humorous side or hold a hidden meaning that lets you in on something private or personal about that individual’s character or upbringing, or perhaps something about their social, economic or cultural class. Anyway, the more I thought about nicknames, the more I wanted to write about nicknames. But the more I wanted to put my thoughts into words the more I realized that I have too many thoughts about nicknames – much like Antonio Salieri’s criticism that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas had “too many notes.” Nonsense of course, but it does mean that I have to organize my thoughts in some logical, if not pleasing, manner such that it makes sense. I can’t promise you the masterful equivalent of an opera such as Mozart (or Salieri for that matter) would have produced, but I do promise you a ramble through the world of nicknames – with a few detours of course to explore themes and thoughts about Parkinson’s, gardening and human nature.
I sometimes think nicknames are the tumbleweeds of nomenclature – they are odd things, very common but often misunderstood, rarely cultivated purposefully or hybridized, and they are quite seedy and prolific. There are cases where exuberant fathers bestow a nickname on a son (in particular) at birth in a vain attempt (or desperate hope) that the little boy will emulate, and become, a sports hero, or perhaps a child prodigy in classical music. But mostly nicknames grow up around you, not very pretty, and seemingly unnoticed until loosed to the wind by a voice or pen, freeing dried stalks to stumble, bumble and tumble across the cultural landscape until social relations provides a barrier with the right conditions for a nickname to germinate and stick in the collective mind of any given community.
Before I go much further, I have to say that getting started on a blog about nicknames has been quite fun but surprisingly, it has also presented its challenges. It should be pretty straightforward, right? Well, wrong. I have lived long enough to know that I shouldn’t proceed to the writing stage of a project without doing some background research so that I don’t make a total fool of myself. [Note: I have long since given up the goal of not making a “fool” of myself but I draw the line at “total fool” which, as a category, encompasses both the completeness of one’s failure and the ‘laughability’ quotient associated with one’s name.]
What exactly is a nickname?
Most definitions of ‘nickname’ encompass the following: an informal, perhaps humourous, name given to a person in addition to his/her real name. OK, so far, so good but hilariously I think that definition is succinct only in the broadest possible way! When additional sharpness is applied to the focus we can see that nicknames often are descriptive of a person’s physical characteristics, personality, skills, talents, or abilities. It may include specificity of geographical location, or at least some hint of it. There may be an event or events (humourous or serious) behind its genesis. The nickname may be widely known and public or it may be held secretively and privately within specific groups or among small numbers of individuals. Nicknames may endure for a lifetime or may exist only fleetingly. Individuals may have more than one nickname over a lifetime and may have more than one nickname at the same time. Some individuals may have had none – but I suspect they are lying.
Most people want to be called by their first name given at birth. Put another way, I believe that most people don’t respond well to someone yelling, “Hey you, get over here! Or, “You, in the black coat, you’re next.” Of course, generally speaking they will also accept to be called by their more officious last names with appropriate modifier e.g., “Ms. Mills, how much is that painting?” Ms., Mrs. and Mr. are commonly used with last names in such cases, and the use of a last name without one of these titles is decidedly less formal e.g., “Mr. Marshall, you are next” as compared to ”Marshall, you are next” unless of course, your first name is Marshall.
As a young lad I sometimes heard the words “I saw that Marshall kid there” when adults were discussing some trouble-making involving children in our small town. Trust me, they were not saying this out of formality and respect. My red hair usually singled me out in any group and I was more likely to hear, “I saw Carrot Top (or Red) there,” establishing my earliest memories of nicknames applied to me. I recall these words one day when I was caught, along with several friends, as we threw stones at the topmost window of a grain elevator. It as a long way up for a 7 or 8 year old but we were rewarded with the sound of tinkling glass, signalling “success.” The whack of my father’s razor strap (I have referred to this dreaded instrument in previous posts) across my behind later that day signaled the “failure” part of my action. Still, I remember feeling some pride (and my father obviously also felt this same sense of pride although misplaced perhaps) as I heard father talking with other fathers about how impressive it was that I had an arm strong enough to reach that window, never mind still have enough velocity on the throw to break the glass at that height. This was an early lesson that there is often bitter with the better, or not all is what it seems, or sometimes compliments come from the craziest of angles.
I also believe that, for the most part, people are happy with their names. I guess we have to be as, ordinarily, we have no control over what we are called. And to change a name requires special dispensation from the state. A name is given to us even before we can speak or think beyond a baby’s thought and is inscribed formally to meet the legal requirements of the responsible political entity within which you live. Informally, we often have a name attributed to us to describe a character trait or some other defining feature. Nicknames fall into this category. At some point(s) a name someone gives to us sticks and is forever contained with quotation marks within our given names, e.g., Herman “Babe” Ruth in baseball or Maurice ”Rocket” Richard in hockey, or Rex “Sexy Rexy” Harrington in Canadian ballet.
Lord knows, communities where I grew up were, and are, populated by people with nicknames like “Skull,” “Boog,” “Weasel,” “Pokey,” “Spud,” “Graser,” “Gruesome,” “Scotty,” “The Old Gardener,” “Jughead” or “Jug,” “Big Bill,” “Jake,” “Red,” “Carrot Top,” “Chuckles McGurk,” “Buster” ”Rubber Boot,” “Aunt ‘Mime,” “Birdie,“ “Helena but my friends call me Helen”and many, many others. Still, when I read local histories and accounts, people in those communities are hardly ever referred to by their nicknames even though many would have responded to those names each and every day. Why is that? Maybe historians are just too formal when they put pencil to paper or when their brain waves are translated into digital pulses. But storytellers shouldn’t be reticent to name nicknames, should they? In fact, it is much better if they aren’t. I am a storyteller first and foremost, and a firsthand observer of the myriad processes of life (that just means I am alive and cogent.) Storytelling is simply my way of packaging life in an understandable and hopefully entertaining form. I don’t have space today to weave in all the humanness contained in the nicknames above, or in the many others referenced elsewhere in this post, but rest assured that these informal monikers have stories to tell and tell them they will in future posts. But for today, here is what I have to offer about nicknames and some of the people who have them.
How nicknames happen
As a teenager I played hockey with a fellow named Neil who was from Wawota, Saskatchewan. Not surprisingly I guess, we called him “Wawota” … that is until he was goofing around one day just before practice while the ice resurfacing machine was finishing up the final flood. Chasing an errant puck he ran smack into its side causing the rest of us to crack up in riotous hoots of uncontrolled laughter, sticks smacking in approval on the ice, while a few of us acted out a series of impromptu on-ice copycat performances of the “move” complete with our best imitation of former Montreal Canadiens’ great broadcaster, Danny Gallivan, doing the play by play, to wit; “Wawota takes the Zamboni into the corner without an iota of trepidation.”
Neil was unhurt but in that single moment his nickname changed immediately and spontaneously to “Zamboni,” after the iconic ice-resurfacing machine. I have no recollection as to whether it was an actual brand name Zamboni but Neil’s new nickname was sealed for the remainder of that hockey season. Did the nickname stick? I have no idea as I never saw nor heard from him after that one year. It doesn’t really matter though as this is a perfect example of, not just a nickname, but also one process through which nicknames are assigned. [Of course, the most important outcome of this event was that we were prohibited absolutely from being on the ice at the same time as the Zamboni proving once again that humans, especially teenage boys, need to be protected from themselves.]
What is not a nickname?
Sometimes we can understand a concept or idea better if we look at it in the negative. What is it not? For me, a nickname most definitely is not a shortened form of your given name e.g., Stan is not a nickname for Stanley and Flo is not a nickname for Florence. On the other hand, some short forms are tantalizingly close to being the real deal e.g., Stosh as a nickname for Stan and Flossie as a nickname for Florence. Do they pass a threshold that imbues qualitatively new information? Does it really matter, you ask? Good question. Yes, I think it does matter because nicknames not only identify us to others but we ourselves are influenced in our self-identification and self-perception by our nicknames, especially those that we carry for long periods of our lives. This theory is reinforced by fairly convincing research on the impact of nicknames on learning success among children. I am not going to attempt to detail it here but positive nicknames are associated with positive self-image and success, and negative nicknames are associated more negatively in these aspects.
Let’s return though to the question of Stosh and Flossie. I think that “Stosh” in the North American context is a nickname especially if your given name is not ‘Stanislav’, which locates your ancestry firmly in Eastern Europe. By the same token, Flossie is really just a diminutive of Florence and not a nickname. Feel free to disagree as a few debates in this literature would liven it up a bit.
Stage names or legal name changes are not nicknames surely. In my view these new names replace wholly and completely the original name or are sufficient to disguise or obscure both public and private eyes to the legal name of an individual in order to render their birth name inoperative. The world of entertainment is filled with individuals who are not known by their original legal names e.g. (with birth names in parentheses) Marilyn Munroe (Norma Jean Mortensen,) Cary Grant (Archibald Alexander Leach,) Stevie Wonder (Steveland Judkins,) Anne Rice (Howard Allen O’Brien,) Shania Twain (Eileen Regina Edwards,) Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz,) Ginger Rogers (Virginia Katherine McMath,) Truman Capote (Truman Streckfus Persons,) Judy Garland (Frances Gumm,) Rock Hudson (Leroy Harold Scherer, Jr.,) Meg Ryan (Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra,) and Woody Allen (Allen Konigsberg.)
Pet names of affection also, I believe, do not qualify as nicknames either so “Honeybuns,” “Snookum”, “Pumpkin,” “Ma Petite Choux,” “Cookie,” “Biscuit,” “Sweet Pea” and a myriad of others are all on the illegitimate list primarily because their intimate private nature means that only one person ever calls the other by that name. That means that context is everything in pet names of affection. By the same token, mean (nasty or bad) pet names or “terms of endearment” should not be classified as nicknames either, right? Or should they? I understand that Sally Struthers was a rather chubby young girl and family members called her “Packy,” short for “Pachyderm.” Apparently Richard Burton called Elizabeth Taylor “Fats” when they were lovers. I can imagine it did not always go over well with the glamorous star of the silver screen. Are these nicknames? I guess you could make the case for Struthers, more so than Elizabeth Taylor, as more than one person in Struthers’ family called her by that name. However, I doubt that anyone other than Sir Richard Burton ever called Elizabeth Taylor ‘Fats.’ On the other hand, let’s face it, there will always be some grey areas or areas of confusion where context may be everything. I admit that these types of names and the social interactions that spawn them intrigue me greatly and are worthy of someone’s studious attention.
Nicknames and Parkinson’s
Let’s consider Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP) for a moment. Given that the majority of PwP are diagnosed after the age of 60, if they have lasting nicknames at all, these names are likely to have been forged and well cemented long before diagnosis and are unlikely to stem from the disease itself. For those with early onset Parkinson’s there is a greater possibility that nicknames are connected in some way to Parkinson’s but the probability of that happening is unknown, and pre-existing nicknames are likely to prevail.
Still, it makes some logical sense that some PwP will have nicknames related to this insidious disease i.e., a name that is a variation of Parkinson’s or describes one of its distinctive characteristics to wit “Shaky,” “Parkie,” “Parky,” “Parkyman,” “Parky lady,” “Parky woman.” I follow a friend on Twitter whose husband has Parkinson’s and she is known in the Twitterverse as “Parkywife.” When you think about it, “Parkinson’s” should be a natural root from which a nickname would sprout and a natural hook on which a nickname would hang. But to be quite honest with you, I haven’t come across very many PwP who have such nicknames. The reason may well be that Parkinson’s is such a negative force that we do not much wish to be identified with it, or to be identified by it – and that is what nicknames do.
One problem with pre-existing nicknames for PwP is that they actually may be antithetical, inconsistent or incongruent with a new life with Parkinson’s e.g., it is difficult to reconcile the old “Swifty” MacMillan with his new Parkinson’s gait or “Steady Eddie” Olsen with his soup spilling hand tremor at the dinner table. Although it is not always the case, it is often a sign of disrespect, especially to elders, to assign a negative nickname to someone who is disabled or suffering obviously from a debilitating disease. Would it ever be the case that “Swifty” would have his nickname changed to “Shuffles” or “Steady Eddie” to have his nickname changed to “Sloppy Eddie,” or perhaps, if he is a father he could be “Sloppy Poppy?” In the world I live in, such changes are not likely. Still, depending on the cultural, economic, political, demographic or ideological grouping to which you belong, degrees of affection or meanness can vary considerably and nicknames are susceptible to these forces.
Inappropriate and hurtful nicknames
I have to admit that I survived childhood and my foolhardy teenage years relatively unscathed in all aspects of my being, due more to good fortune than to good sense. Youthful eyes and ears are often ignorant about what they see and hear and when that information is transmitted to a youthful brain, it can sometimes spill out in unfortunate ways. Of course, there are worse nicknames than “Shuffles” or “Sloppy,” for a person with Parkinson’s, but the point is that if it is born of meanness or maliciousness, the PwP should be spared that slight, and accorded respect. At the very least (or should it be most?) you should not be defined in the eyes of others by a disability or illness especially with a derogatory or demeaning nickname. Believe me, you do lose some respect when people learn you have Parkinson’s or watch you struggle with your Parky body and brain. By the way, losing respect for those people in return does not even the matter up but this is a topic for another time. Here’s a little story to illustrate the meanness factor in some nicknames.
When I was a child there was a retired farmer and his wife in my community and they were ‘the salt of the earth’ as the saying goes. To my knowledge they harmed no one, were caring and loving parents and grandparents, were friends to everyone, participated to the betterment of everyone in community, church and social affairs, were unselfish in watching over the children of their neighbours. They deserved to be treated with respect – the kind of respect that is not undermined by behind the back uncharitable comments. It was determined by persons unknown that the wife was not very good looking and, for as far back as I can reach into my childhood memory, she was called derisively, behind her, her husband’s and her family’s collective backs, by the epithet: “Beaut” or sometimes “Ol’ Beaut.” Please recall that the ignorance of youth is not only a blessing at times, it is also a curse and as children we did not know the meaning of the word “epithet“ and we accepted that “Ol’ Beaut” or “Beaut” was indeed the name we should use when referring to her. The tragedy of course is that we ended up using that nickname in front of her, her husband, her children and her grandchildren who were about my age at the time. The children’s rhyme of “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But names will never hurt me” comes to mind as the first line of defense we used to ward off name-calling. The problem is that, as we discussed earlier, nicknames are more than school yard name-calling, they are identifiers in life i.e., calling someone “scuzzy” is one thing but naming them “Scuzzy” is quite another. In the world of psychological hurt, this difference is meaningful.
But the story does not end there. The farmer and his wife had a daughter who married a fellow from a neighbouring district. For better or for worse as they say, they eked out a living on a small parcel of farmland for many years. But rural life was changing. The small quarter section family farm was giving way to agribusiness. Corporate family farms and Hutterite Colonies began buying up the land of farmers who could not adapt to changing grain, animal and produce markets. While this development was not sudden and stretched over a couple of decades, it was nonetheless inexorable in its march. Many farmers were blind to the inevitable as they viewed their futures through the prisms of whiskey and beer bottle bottoms and in the confines of the ‘still safe from intruding women’ men-only hotels that typified small towns across the prairies. The daughter did her level best to farm the conjugal farmland but it was a losing battle. Her husband succumbed to alcoholism and became more and more a hindrance than a help. Somewhere along this path (I am not sure that it really matters when) he acquired the nickname “Wacker.” I am uncertain as to the genesis of this name but it is the name that we children called him to his face and to others – including in front of the farmer and his wife (the aforementioned “Ol’ Beaut”) whose daughter married “Wacker.” As you can see, layers of insensitivity and subtle meanness can pile up over generations. It wasn’t until years later that I learned his real name. Perhaps, as children, we could be excused from such a continuous display of disrespect, but we cannot be excused if we persist in such behaviour well after we should know better. My words here are not intended as an apologia but rather as a supplicatus that no one, child or adult, should find such malicious nicknaming acceptable
Sometimes the default setting is defective
This brings to mind another occasion when I was embarrassed and betrayed by both my mouth and brain – my brain for not remembering and my mouth for engaging before my brain sent the signal to keep closed. Let’s be clear these failures cannot be placed at the feet of my usual whipping boy, Parkinson’s. If it had been due to Parkinson’s my mouth would have engaged several moments after my brain deemed it appropriate and in fact, the point of the conversation would have moved on long before the mouth uttered a word. No, in this case my mouth was clearly ahead of my brain and my brain was not loaded with the correct data.
In my early 20s I was hanging out one day with a young lad from my hometown at a friend’s place in Winnipeg. I was five or six years older and at that age, five or six years, while not quite a generational gap, is a considerable difference. On top of that, I had not been living at home for a couple of years. Suffice it to say that I barely knew this fellow and knew even less about his life and his likes or dislikes. I really have no recollection as to the primary reason for our being together on this particular day – maybe there was no reason other than the cosmic forces teaching me another life lesson, albeit a minor one – or, come to think about it, maybe not that minor as I remember it these 45 years later like it was yesterday.
Someone came to the door and it was necessary for me to make introductions. I know most of us have been in this situation – we have to introduce someone and we cannot for the life of us remember her/his name. Your mind is a total blank, either scrolling pointlessly and finding no memory of anything resembling a name, or freezing with the cursor stuck, unresponsive to any prodding. Either way, a familiar panic sets in – you are caught out. This day my brain opted for the default – not a good default, but a default nonetheless, put there by a programmer who didn’t fully understand social niceties. Thinking back, it could have worked, it might have worked, but it didn’t work. My brain says to my mouth, “You know his nickname, call him that.”
“… And this is …. um … Gruesome,” I say with some relief. Relief though immediately turns to regret – both are five-letter words but not anywhere close in meaning. I see the young lad’s face fall in disappointment. Clearly this name was not one that he had chosen for himself, and it may well have been bestowed upon him in a mean spirited way. To his credit and showing great maturity, he says calmly, “Actually, It’s Danny, and I am pleased to meet you.”
Shaping your identity
Now, there are worse nicknames than Gruesome, but no matter, the lesson is the same. You should make it a point to know those around you, not just because it is the polite thing to do, but because in that moment of introduction you have a responsibility in a real life process of perception and self-perception, and the formation and perpetuation of identity. In some senses, our self-perception is shaped by how others see us, the looking glass self. I have no way of knowing for certain but I greatly doubt if Danny was harmed significantly by my inappropriate and awkward introduction and it may well be that I was impacted to a larger degree, given that it has been burned into my memory bank. Still, make no mistake; nicknames are a weird wild card in this process of identity creation.
In this era of ‘social media’ (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) we are always giving ourselves names that are not the ones we were given at birth. I reference many of these social media names in other sections of this blog. For example, the alter ego writing this blog is “The PD Gardener.” I wager that if not for social media and the practice of selecting one’s own ‘handle,’ no one would have ever in a million years called me “The PD Gardener” as a nickname. In fact, “The PD Gardener” is more so a ‘nom de plume,’ a pen name, pseudonym, or an alias, creating a vague cloak of anonymity without being truly anonymous, than it is a nickname. Pen names of course are not unusual and were often adopted for good reason. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot to ensure her work was taken seriously and Samuel Langhorne Clemens used Mark Twain as an alias. There is a richness to pen names that needs to be explored but that is not for me, at least not today.
To get a better handle (pun intended) on the development of nicknames, we have to understand that these names and the naming conventions on which they are based are not solely creatures of today’s social media. Rather, they are built on both established traditions and evolving practices in communications and maybe even an indication of the democratization of communications. [Uh, oh I feel like I am in a Sociology of Communications class.]
Shortwave radio surged in importance in the early 1900s, replacing long distance communication using transoceanic cables and long wave transmission. Amateur radio took off as a recreational pastime with each operator having an individual ‘call sign.’ Prior to 1913 only the initials of the radio operator were required for a licence but a series of international protocols since then have evolved into the current standardized call signs. Most call signs in Canada are assigned by Industry Canada and start with the letter “V” followed by various digits indicating the province or territory. You often see these call signs on personalized licence plates of Ham radio operators. While there is some leeway for individuals to select call signs from those available, the signs themselves are formulated under strict government regulation. I am not going to go into detail but if you are interested you can visit the Industry Canada website at http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/smt-gst.nsf/eng/h_sf01709.html
CB Radio (Breaker, Breaker)
If you had a CB radio in the 1950s and 1960s the chances are you heard something like this: “Breaker one-niner, Come in Thermos Bottle” (request for the driver of a chemical tanker to communicate on channel 19) or “Breaker one-niner, Kojak with a Kodak, I-10 Taco Town,” (communicating a warning on channel 19 that there is a radar speed trap on I-10 near San Antonio, Texas.)
This language is a cultural marker of a major development in communications in the mid – 1940s, the widespread use of CB radios especially in the trucking industry. Truckers selected their own “handles” and their ability to tailor their names was unlimited. “Papa Smurf,” “Billy The Kid,” “The Southern Shaker,” ”Bandit,” “Bedroom Bandit,” “Lead Foot Lady of Interstate 80” are legendary ‘handles’ and there are tens of thousands of others from the last 50 years that were popular and recognizable especially in the continental United States, Canada and Mexico. Police were called “Smokeys” and truckers were forever passing on information over their CB radios as to the locations of speed traps or load limit spot checks and how to avoid them. By the way, this function of the CB radio is now largely obsolete with the development of modern interactive GPS apps through which drivers can submit information on speed traps and red light cameras at intersections. In fact, I have such an app on my cell phone.
Summary of Essential Elements of a Nickname
What does this brief history of names in different modes of communication tell us about nicknames? I think there are three specific things to note: (1) ham radio handles are not nicknames but are alphanumeric codes under government regulation signifying province or territory. (2) CB radio ‘handles’ are analogous to nicknames on the one hand in that they are ascribed to an individual in place of a legal name(s) but, on the other hand, they do not meet a key test of a nickname in that they are conferred upon one’s own self and not ascribed by a third party or parties. Even if the ‘handle’ is descriptive of a specific characteristic of the individual it cannot be a true nickname unless conferred by a third party. (3) Handles in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and email accounts, etc. are not nicknames but are self-ascribed names in an attempt to ensure some anonymity or secretiveness. But, as always, there may be exceptions or gray areas. Let’s follow up on that later shall we?
The number of nicknames is prodigious
As I was kicking around my initial ideas about nicknames, I became obsessed with asking people about nicknames and I began to assemble a list (a very, very long list.) Just think of the number of people with nicknames that you know personally and then add all those who are public and newsworthy figures. The numbers add up very quickly. Sports personalities alone occupy a massive amount of storage space in human memory banks. How many gigabytes or terabytes? No one really knows for certain but historic and current sports figures are immortalized there with names like “Shoeless” Joe Jackson the disgraced outfielder for the infamous scandal plagued 1919 Chicago White Sox (a team interestingly enough with its own nickname, the “Black Sox;”) or Rusty “Le Grand Orange” Staub of the now defunct Montreal Expos (still my favourite baseball team;) Maurice “Rocket” Richard and his younger brother Henri “Pocket Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens in hockey; Michael “Air” Jordan or Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain in basketball; Jack “The Golden Bear” Nicklaus or “Slammin’” Sammy Snead in golf; and Ricardo Alonso “Pancho” Gonzalez or John “The Brat” McEnroe in tennis, to name only a very few.
The sheer volume of nicknames in sports is prodigious – so prodigious in fact that I was sent scrambling to the dictionary to find out just how prodigious prodigious can be. Fittingly, prodigious is elastic and can expand to any size depending on the parameters set. In other words, the number of nicknames for sports personalities is prodigious now but can, and will, expand to an even greater prodigious size in the future. I see no end to it. The capacity for nicknames for athletes is infinitely prodigious. In fact, as if to underscore the point, some athletes have the dubious honour of having more than one nickname active at any given time. Patrick Kane, star right winger of the Chicago Blackhawks has at least 11 nicknames including: “Kaner,” “Jonny’s boy,” “The Doctor,” “Peekaboo,” “20-Cent,” “Lil’ Peekaboo,” “Peeks,” “Dr. Kane,” “Showtime,” “Pattycakes,” and “He Came He Saw He Kanequered.” Arguably some of these are stretches as legitimate everyday nicknames, but undoubtedly some do meet the strict test I have set for the legitimacy of a nickname – describing character of the individual as accorded and used by a third party.
Nicknames for women in a gendered world
Okay fair enough you say, but are there any limiting parameters? The keen observer will have noticed long before now that most of my examples have been from the male world. I have done this purposefully as I perceive that there are significant gender differences in the world of nicknames. It seems to be true generally that women don’t engage in public rituals to confer a nickname on someone; don’t use nicknames in conversation with others; and they are not favourable towards having their nicknames, should they have one, publicly displayed. Still women do have nicknames. Let’s have a brief look at some names (nick or not) given to some famous women.
In the world of entertainment Jennifer Lopez is “J. Lo,” Katherine Hepburn was also known as “First Lady of Cinema,” “Kate,” and “The Great Kate;” Bette Midler is the “Divine Miss M.” Comedian Mary Walsh is a pioneer in hard-hitting Canadian political comedy and satire to the point where her alter ego ”Marg Delahunty: Warrior Princess” may well be her nickname.
Many female political figures also have nicknames. Time Magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year is German Chancellor, Angela “Mutti” Merkel, who is widely accepted as the most powerful woman in the world and the de facto leader of the European Union. “Mutti” is German for Mommy, Mama, or Mom. Not surprisingly, other strong women in politics have also been accorded significant nicknames e.g., Golda Meir was known as the “Iron Lady of Israeli Politics” long before Margaret Thatcher acquired the “Iron Lady” label in the UK. [Note: I am not passing judgment upon their politics here. I may well do that in future blog posts as I do have some strong views.]
First Ladies in the United States have often had nicknames. “Lady Bird” Johnson used this name allegedly given to her as a baby by a nursemaid. Mary Geneva Eisenhower was nicknamed “Maimie.” Dorothea Madison was called “Dolley” by all but there has been some discussion about whether this was an official name, and Helen Herron Taft was nicknamed “Nellie.” Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford Hayes was widely known as “Lemonade Lucy” as she was a supporter of the Temperance movement and served non-alcoholic drinks at the White House.
In Canada our first and only female Prime Minister, Avril Phædra Douglas Campbell nicknamed herself “Kim” as a teenager. And the nickname stuck perhaps making this an exception to my general rule that a nickname must be accorded by a third party or parties. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Canada who would be able to identify Kim Campbell correctly by her real name. Famous Canadian political activist and suffragette Nellie “Windy Nellie” McClung lived a short 13 or so miles away from where I grew up and earned her nickname because she was a fiery orator and never at a loss for words. And the “Lady with the Lamp,” Florence Nightingale, forever changed the course of health care setting professional standards and practices for nurses and nursing care.
Nicknames in male Culture
I wager that men have more nicknames than women and are responsible for the act of nicknaming more than women are. Mind you, I have not conducted a scientific meta-analysis of existing peer reviewed and published studies within the esoteric literature of anthroponomastics or anthroponymy (the study of names of human beings including nicknames) although I admit that of all academic endeavours this does seem like a very pleasant diversion from the usual academic stuffiness if one were inclined to be part of the academe.
Nevertheless, I don’t think I am wrong on this one. Males are forever engaged in nicknaming everything and everyone they can. I am not inclined to engage in gratuitous descriptions about the male culture of naming body parts or assigning nicknames based on characteristics of sexual prowess. However, I do not feel it appropriate to skirt this issue without at least making a token foray into male cultural practices by citing two examples from my hockey playing days, for illustrative purposes only.
In this first case, let’s just say that the nickname “Poppycock” is not a reference to a fondness for the famous sweet mixture of candied popcorn, peanuts, pecans, cashews, and chocolate. In fact, I don’t even know if “Poppy” liked sweets but his nickname was more the measure of the man so to speak. Nevertheless, jockstrap size aside, he was short and sturdy and could skate like the wind. He didn’t always know where he was going but he tried to get there quickly. Coach Eddie would quip, “Poppy, you have million dollar legs and a 10 cent head.” There were also suggestions that perhaps the greater part of his hockey brain was housed within the head inside his jock strap rather than the one on his shoulders. [Competitive hockey was not then, nor is now, a game for sensitive souls. I shall blog about this more at a later time.] The Oakland Seals selected Poppy in the amateur draft portion of the 1967 NHL expansion to 12 teams from the original six. It was quite an accomplishment for Poppy. However, he never played in the NHL and kicked around in the minor professional leagues for seven years before hanging them up.
In this second example, the nickname “Job” is not a Biblical reference or a euphemism for a player who was hard working and gets the job done. Not surprisingly, as we are referring to a male cultural environment, it refers to an act of oral sex and the original formulation was “Blow Job” or “BJ,” a variant of this player’s name and initials, and it should come as no surprise that there were several iterations in existence at the same time. I recall his girlfriend being quite puzzled by the nickname and was forever asking him why we called him “Job.” You have to understand that Job was (and probably still is) one of the quietest, unassuming guys I have ever met. The word “nice” just didn’t do justice to his character back then. His shy smile could disarm even the hardest of hearts but on the ice he was a tenacious checker and ruthless in his drive to the net to score. Don’t confuse “quiet and unassuming” with a lack of motivation to succeed and he was a scoring dynamo in his Junior A hockey career. But alas, Job was on the small side at 5’9” and a charitable, even soaking wet, 180 pounds. Scouts were looking for big and while he had all the tools as a skater, checker, goal scorer, Job was in a tough battle against other expansion draft behemoths of the day. For all but a five game “look see” near the end of his career with the NHL St. Louis Blues in the mid-1970s, he played in the minor leagues.
I hasten to say that there was absolutely nothing that either of these players could have done to avoid being saddled with these monikers. It was more or less spontaneous and as soon as the names hit the dressing room floor, the die was cast and the names stuck – at least within the team for a few seasons. I cannot say whether there was any longevity to the practice but I suspect the nicknames did not have much currency outside of the locker room and died after a short time, unless one or more contemporaries accompanied Job and Poppycock to other playing assignments. Ironically, contemporaries are nasty that way – they bring history with them! I also want to emphasize that, to my knowledge, neither one of them was a “player” in sexual relations with women. Of course, there were many other players whose teenage hormones raged and played the field of available girls to the limit.
While I do feel an almost uncontrollable urge to divulge other nicknames and information from those years of my life, I will leave that for another day as surely the main point to be made here is that male culture produces nicknames formed through the filter of that culture. If that is the dominant culture, then the mass and/or volume of nicknames in that society will reflect that reality. [I am certain there is a PhD thesis here but I am not going to do it.]
Perhaps, it is this dominance of the male culture that sent my family and some friends into paroxysms of laughter at the nickname “Shrimpy,” when I asked them at a family dinner over the Holidays, quite spontaneously and without warning, about nicknames. In fact, “Shrimpy” is a perfectly good example of a nickname and a character in Downton Abby is so named. Nevertheless, it seems that male culture often prevails. I apologize to anyone nicknamed “Shrimpy” for any embarrassment that my family so uncouthly attempts to foist upon him.
The points that need to be underscored from my vantage point are that males are more likely to have a nickname, more likely to address others using a nickname, more likely to attempt to hang a nickname on someone else and more likely to give himself a nickname. I am quite certain that there are equivalencies found in certain elements of female culture, but the probability and the generality of nicknames being more important for men than for women should hold true – according to ‘conventional wisdom’ at least
Critical thinking can make all the difference
Uh, oh, I feel a caveat involving ‘conventional wisdom’ coming on and I must deviate slightly from the main topic in order to explain my thinking and, of course, to absolve myself if I am wrong about any factual statements I make or conclusions I may draw.
The words “conventional wisdom” always remind me of a story told by one of my high school teachers. The message of the story resonated with me at the time and has continued to do so over the last 50 plus years. In fact, when I was teaching at universities or involved in adult education in the community or with workers, I always told this story as a way to underscore the importance of “critical thinking” in almost every aspect of life. Unfortunately, some people have taken “critical thinking” to mean that you criticize or attack other views and opinions to destroy them. My personal experience is that “critical thinking” is a positive activity that clarifies argument and paves the way for progress.
The story goes somewhat like this: A father was telling his daughter that she had things rather easy compared to his own childhood experience. I am sure that we have all heard variations of this story from our own parents and elders. You know, I used to walk six miles to school against the wind, through snow six feet deep, and other such embellishments. The father punctuated this particular assertion by saying, “When I was your age, I had to get up in the morning, do my chores in the barn and then I would go down to the lake, take off my clothes and swim across the lake three times.”
The daughter thought for a few seconds about this latest attempt by her father to impress upon her that she was privileged in her life compared to those in earlier times, and responded very gracefully, “ Father, I am impressed with your work ethic in doing the chores early in the morning. Your parents must have been so grateful for your assistance. And your commitment to exercise by swimming across the lake three times is truly admirable, especially in a time when physical fitness was not as valued or as well organized as it today. You must have been a true role model. But respectfully father, I think it would have been better for you and, probably for everyone else, if you had gone to the lake, taken off your clothes and swum across the lake either two or four times so that you would be back on the same side as your clothes.”
This is a ‘cautionary tale’ and the very simple lesson is that we should never take anything at face value. Always listen carefully to what is being said. Sometimes, we are too quick to accept ideas or things we are told as truth before examining them for factual inadequacies, half – truths and mistakes, or indeed testing the consistency of the internal logic. This caution is for you to be on your toes and to not let me get away with anything. In return I shall do my utmost, as all storytellers do, to portray life events and their meanings accurately while at the same time avoiding detection when I am stretching truth and logic to the limits.
My personal experience with nicknames
Most of us have several nicknames over a lifetime. I had red hair so I was often called “Red” or “Carrot Top” as a child but they didn’t stick with me even into my teen years. “Sidney” was the first nickname I ever had that irritated me. It was bestowed upon me unintentionally in Grade One by Ms. Bennett, a young woman doing her teaching practicum in our small school in Altamont, Manitoba. Undoubtedly the seating chart listed me with my proper first name, Stanley, but when she called upon me, she always said “Sidney” instead of Stanley. This moniker stuck with me for several years, used somewhat derogatorily by a few local children who were not exactly good friends. It’s a funny thing but often nicknames are not short pithy descriptors. Sometimes they evolve into long form substitute names of considerable creativity. Consequently, “Sidney” for some odd reason (by the way, it doesn’t take much of a reason) morphed into “Sidney Slump” and then my status was devalued even more when I became “Sidney Slump from the City Dump.” Today, I am not known as “Sidney” or any of its elongations and thankfully, Sidney “Sid the Kid” Crosby, star center for the Pittsburgh Penguins, has transformed “Sidney” from ignominy into the desirable limelight within my age group.
My wife Anne, the person who knows and understands me best, often (but not always) refers to me by my nom de plume, “The PD Gardener.” As discussed earlier, I believe that a necessary criterion in the definition of a nickname is that it must be ascribed to your person by a third party or parties in place of your birth name. “The PD Gardener” identifies two major elements in my life – Parkinson’s and gardening. It is not the whole of my being it is true, but nicknames never provide a complete identification. In fact, some of them are remarkably devoid of any obvious identifying content e.g., Eldrick “Tiger” Woods while others provide clear clues as to character e.g., Gen. George S. “Ol’ Blood ‘n Guts” Patton. Both serve as nicknames though.
Sometimes people try to create a nickname because … well just because it is better to have a nickname than not to have one, right? A childhood friend (let’s call him “T”) wanted to be known as “Tiger.” Keep in mind that this was around 1960, well before Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was born (December 30, 1975) and before Dave “Tiger” Williams debuted with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the National Hockey League in 1974. Perhaps, it was a nod to that iconic “Tony the Tiger”(Tastes Grrrreeeaaaattt!) of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes fame. [Note that “sugar” was still an acceptable modifier in those days.] I sometimes think that I learned to spell watching Kellogg’s commercials in the 1950s and 1960s – “K-E-double L – O – Double Good Good – Kellogg’s best to you.”
Whatever … let’s get back to our attempt to give T the nickname “Tiger.” Our strategy was to call T “Tiger” at every opportunity, as often as we could, in as many places as we could until others began calling him “Tiger” as well. My recollection is that the strategy was a complete failure. At first, some of us were too aggressive and every sentence began and ended with the word “Tiger” and it became an endangered species due to overkill. Some of us did not follow up on our commitment because we mostly forgot to call him Tiger. Some of us wondered who “Tiger” was when it came up. We were young kids but we could have been old men! I now recognize this experience as a clear lesson: just repeating something over and over again, does make it true, nor does it mean that everyone will accept it as “real.” And some people will forget anyway. It seems that many politicians, policy makers, communications gurus, and marketing firms have not learned this lesson. The long and the short of it is that “Tiger” did not stick even for the shortest of times.
Perhaps, part of the problem was that we, at the age of 9 or 10, didn’t understand the complexities of “rebranding.” Clearly, our small rural grade school education was quite deficient in teaching us skills we would need to know later in life. As I think about it, I don’t think people ever saw T as a Tiger and we gave them no reason to think of him as a Tiger. If you are going to change the name (or give someone a name) you have to highlight whatever it is that connects the body to the new name, or give the new name some value. T did not perceive himself to be a tiger in any particular way e.g., personality. He just liked the name. Others did not make that connection either so they did not reflect that image back to him. If they didn’t think of him as a tiger then it was unlikely that he would adopt a self-perception necessary for the nickname to be viable. And T just did not look enough like Tony the Tiger on TV! In the end, T never really had a nickname that I can remember. Maybe he acquired one later in life.
More nicknames for me? Great….
My given name, Stan, was a name that begged to have “The Man” attached to it. I certainly didn’t mind it as it not only rhymed but it embedded seriousness in my existence, eclipsing the “City Dump” assignation. Even in those days, the concept of “You da Man!” was present in the sense that others thought you were more than capable of getting the job done. I was often called “Stan the Man” by my peers as well as by my parent’s generation especially when playing sports. Two particular professional athletes figured largely in the “Stan the Man” phenomenon. In baseball “Stan the Man” Musial played 22 seasons (1941 – 1963) for the St. Louis Cardinals amassing 3,630 hits, 475 home runs and a stunning .331 batting average.
Stanislav “Stan the Man” Mikita was a second influence. Mikita played his entire illustrious 21-year career with the Chicago Blackhawks, debuting in 1958 and leading the Hawks to a Stanley Cup in 1961. I was 12 years old and a huge Chicago fan living vicariously through my heroes, some with interesting nicknames e.g., Bobby “The Golden Jet” Hull, Stan “The Man” or “Stosh” Mikita, Glen “Mr. Goalie” Hall, Al ”Radar” Arbour, Elmer “Moose” Vasko, Kenny “Whip” Wharram, Pierre “The Bantam Bouncer” Pilote, Eddie “Litz” Litzenberger, Eric “Elbows” Nesterenko, Earl “Spider” Balfour, Doug “Diesel” Mohns.] It was the Hawks’ first Stanley Cup since 1938 (23 years) and the next win wasn’t until 2010 (29 years later.) Mikita played in 1,394 games, scoring 1,467 points including 541 goals. He won the Art Ross trophy as Most Valuable Player four times among many other honours.
Sadly, Mikita was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) in 2015. Al Arbour, Mikita’s teammate from the 1961 Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and dementia a few years prior to Mikita’s diagnosis. Medically, if dementia occurs prior to, or within, one year of a diagnosis of Parkinson’s symptoms, then it is classified as LBD. If dementia is diagnosed after one year of a diagnosis of Parkinson’s it is classified as Parkinson’s dementia. Lewy bodies are structurally composed of misfolded alpha – synuclein a protein that forms clumps (Lewy bodies) in the brain and contribute to that person developing Parkinson’s. Research is ongoing and there is no clear scientific explanation yet as to how this happens. Still, it is my understanding that all PwP, when autopsied after death, show evidence of Lewy bodies in their brains..
“Stan the Man” came and went as my nickname a few times over the years but in total it did not stick with me for long. Still, it is humbling to share even briefly this name with such legends as Stan Musial and Stan Mikita, although I would rather that neither Mikita nor myself (nor Al Arbour) had Parkinson’s or Lewy Body Dementia.
Coincidentally, Stan Mikita was born in 1940 in Sokolce, Czechoslovakia to Slovak parents as Stanislav Guoth. Stanislav is a common name for Slovaks, Poles (Stanislaw,) Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians and others in Eastern Europe. In my early 20s, I lived and worked in Winnipeg, which has significant Polish and Ukrainian populations in its north end and I was often called, and answered to, the nickname “Stanislav” or its diminutives “Stach”, “Stosh,” “Stasio” or “Stasiu.” I am not entirely certain how this name game got started but I worked in various places near the north end e.g., the CPR Weston Shops and the Anthes Western Foundry where many Poles and Ukrainians worked. Earlier, I observed that nicknames sometimes outgrow their diminutive stature. This happened to me when my new nickname was elongated to Stosiu Mendowski – a relatively uncommon family name with Polish roots. In my case, this name is a completely fictional one foisted upon me by my pub-crawling, drinking buddies who were, ironically, largely of Mennonite heritage. I believe that there are people in Winnipeg who never knew my legal name and are convinced that I was, indeed, Stosiu Mendowski. While I did nothing to promote my nickname overtly, neither did I do anything to disabuse anyone of its veracity. It just seemed that under the circumstances of too many beers, too much whiskey and occasionally sketchy company in north end hotels, the idea to stay relatively anonymous was not a bad strategy.
Don’t get me wrong, there were not a lot of really bad things going on, it is just that often times we were riding the edge of misadventure. I don’t say this proudly but just as a statement of fact. I can spare you the effort of Googling it though; you won’t find Stosiu Mendowski in the long list of aliases attributed to “bad guys” in history. Stosiu was not a crook, thief, murderer, forger, bank robber, white-collar criminal, corrupt politician or senator, mobster, gangster, hood or drug lord. Gangs have been around forever but my “Stosiu period” was mostly in the early 1970s well before the musical and cultural phenomenon known as “gangsta’ rap” was unleashed on an impressionable youth in the early to mid-1980s – so let’s not get confused here!
Speaking of ‘bad guys’ is there any grouping in society that has more colourful nicknames than gangsters? Names like Al “Scarface” Capone; “Bugsy” Malone; Leonard “Needles” Gianolla; Lester “Baby Face Nelson,” Gillis; Stephanie “Queenie” St. Clair; Opal “Mack Truck” Long; “Ma” Barker; Evelyn “Billie” Frechette; Virginia “The Flamingo” or “Queen of the Gangster Molls” Hill; Gertrude “The Bahama Queen” Lythgoe; Rafela “Miconia” or “The Big Female Kitten” D’Alterio; ” Maria “The Boss of Bosses” or “The Godmother” Licciardi; Sandra Ávila “The Queen of the Pacific” Beltrán;” Jemeker “Queen Pin” Thompson to name a few. Note that nickname notoriety is not reserved for men in gangland, as women are infamous in their own right.
My nicknames never really had that gangster quality and I never associated, at least not knowingly, with mobsters or even small time “hoods.” But that does not mean I did not know some unsavoury types. Think of a less savoury illegal occupation, one that even hoods and gangsters would look down upon as not having any honour, and you come closer to describing some characters who operated on the periphery of the loose social grouping of friends, acquaintances and accidental encounters with whom I hung out. If the words, “petty thief” came to your mind you are a winner! Petty thieves engage in illegal activity that is more serious than a peccadillo but less serious than a felony and is marked by a certain creepiness that offends.
To illustrate, let’s give this petty thief a fitting but fictitious name: “Fingers” sounds about right; “Fingers” Finnegan. I want to say in advance that I did not witness first hand any of the following events or actions and never benefited from the ‘rewards.’ Nevertheless, Fingers relished telling the stories in a boastful manner that highlighted rather than diminished the sliminess of it all, and made us realize what a warped sense of pride he possessed. Don’t ever mistake ‘hubris’ for ‘bravery’ or ‘blind stupid luck’ for ‘intelligence.” [Hmmm … I hope that he has reformed … or is still a petty thief, because if he is a gangster … or a lawyer … he might come looking for me to exact some compensation (physical or fiscal) for libel or defamation of character. I shall trust that statutory limitations accorded by time and forgetfulness is on my side.]
What follows is an enactment of a typical Finnegan petty crime based on my recollection of stories told by Finnegan himself. [Apologies for the coarse language but, in fact, his expletives were usually more flagrant than I recount here. He was particularly fond of interspersing the word “fuckin’” in between syllables or words such that “the international unions” became ”the fuckin’ inter fuckin’ national fuckin’ unions.”]
Fingers Finnegan bursts through the door into the kitchen of the main floor apartment in an old, possibly heritage but not yet designated, house on Furby Ave in Winnipeg. It is mid- January 1971 and the air rushes in mimicking its parental cold front that was sweeping down from the Yukon through Cold Lake, Alberta and across the prairies in search of Winnipeg’s infamous Portage and Main. With the temperature falling through the floor at minus 25 F (minus 30 C,) a foggy swirl of ice crystals creates a vacuum leaving Fingers gasping for breath – but cradling a plastic grocery bag across his chest, he was breathless for a reason other than it was a stereotypical winter Winnipeg moment, and the fact that he looked truly frozen wearing only a thin windbreaker hardly worthy of the name. His hands were shaky and fingers numb, unprotected as they were by any form of gloves or mitts. It is a strange thing to treat your major “asset,” the reason for your nickname, with such disregard. His feet fared no better as his “patent” vinyl soled slippery city shoes did their level best to turn his feet into ice blocks. He tries to place the grocery bag carefully on the kitchen table but it lands with a frozen “thunk.” Perhaps out of habit, or because of some misconceived notion of the thermal capacity of cold beer, or because he needs to fortify himself after the evening’s excitement, Fingers grabs a beer from a two-four on the kitchen counter, sticks the top in his mouth and pops the cap off with his teeth. [How the heck do they do that without chipping teeth, I’ll never know.]
A TV is playing in the next room and there are voices of other male occupants.
Two guys sitting in the kitchen, simultaneously: “Close the fuckin’ door, you asshole!”
Finnegan: “Fuuuuccccckkk! That’s what I’m telling you, man, the door didn’t close!”
Finnegan: [Yelling at two guys in the other room]: “Hey! Listen up you freaks! This is the best yet!”
Finnegan continues: “You should have seen it man! She was this close to me!” [He indicates a distance of about 3 feet with his arms.]
Finnegan [now holding court with all occupants:] “I was in the back porch when she came out. Shit, I was so fucking lucky to be behind the door! I just held my breath and door stuck open on the floor. If that door had closed behind her, I would have been fuckin’ face to face with her. Christ, I was soooo luuuuccckkkky! She went over to a freezer, got something out and went back into the house pulling the door behind her. I don’t know how she didn’t see me! I could see her eyes as she walked past and I could smell her perfume. I thought I was fuckin’ dead.” [Emphasis on last two words]
[There is short period of silence as the others take a moment to process Finnegan’s words.]
Finnegan: “I could hear her walking around on the squeaky floor in the kitchen, making supper, I guess. I could hear the TV in the front room and a man yell from upstairs for her to help him with his suit. I wasn’t sure if there was anyone else in the house. I didn’t hear anyone else talking though so I was pretty sure they were alone. I was across the street at the corner store when I saw her get off the bus, knock on the front door and this little weasel opens it and lets her in.”
[Fingers pauses as if for effect. In reality he is just taking a swig from his beer, and chowing down on some unidentified left over food]
Finnegan continues: “Then I heard her going up the stairs. I listened but I didn’t hear anyone else. I opened the back door to the kitchen leaving it stuck open on the porch floor. I needed a quick exit. The fuckin’ wind howled outside but the porch was a good windbreak. My car was running in the back lane.”
[Again Fingers pauses to take a bite and wash it down with beer. It seemed like it might have been the only food he had eaten for awhile. He was skinny as a rail with a pasty white complexion that might have been confused with frostbite given the bitter cold … but it wasn’t. His hair was long, stringy and greasy – and getting greasier each time as he ran his food fingers through it to keep it out of his eyes.]
Finnegan: “So I went in, looked around, not much to steal, so I looked in the ‘fridge, grabbed a grocery bag and got the fuck out of there. I don’t even remember if I closed the door. Holy shit! My adrenaline was pumpin’ as I skated to the back lane and hightailed it to Arlington.” (Fingers made a point of not stealing in his own neighbourhood.)
Other Guy No. 1 (as if stating a fact): “You’re nuts.”
Other Guy No. 2 (suspiciously): Hey, what’re you eating?
Finnegan (proudly): Turkey! Great, eh? Look….
[Finnegan reaches into the bag on the table and pulls out a large China platter laden with turkey pieces. It seems the platter was responsible for the “thunk” when the grocery bag hit the table and it now sits incongruously among greasy Gondola Pizza boxes, Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets, and Golden Dragon Chinese food containers with beer bottles, half-eaten pizza crusts, and chicken bones strewn about on the floor as if a time traveling feast of Henry VIII and his court had just passed.]
Other Guy No. 3: “You know, you really are fuckin’ nuts!”
Finnegan (as if notching his belt signifying a new kill): “Holy geez, first time I ever stole food right out of the kitchen when people were home!”
Other Guy No. 2: “What if that guy chased you?”
Finnegan: “Oh, I wasn’t fuckin’ worried about that weasel once I reached my car. You see, I stole the fuckin’ battery out of the asshole’s car before I went into the house.”
(Finnegan chuckles a short heh, heh,heh and blows imaginary gun smoke from the end of his right index finger)
Finnegan: That’s why they call me “Fingers.”
Several other guys (simultaneously with same intent but slightly differing words:) “Get that fucking guy outta here!”
I am not sure how to end this digression except to say that while the turkey may have been savoury, the crime was far from it – in fact ‘unsavoury’ may well be an integral descriptor in the definition of petty thief.
Rules for nicknames and legal names
“Rules? In a knife fight? No rules.“ This line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (nice nicknames, eh?) is delivered by Paul Newman’s larger, stronger opponent just before Newman in return, delivers a swift kick to his tender parts. As we have already discovered, the game of nicknaming seems to have a similar set of rules.
It should be obvious when you think of the wide variety and nicknames that are out there that nicknames are not registered with any regulatory authority ensuring codified provenance and ancestry. However, It seems that naming your children is regulated fairly closely in some jurisdictions but less so in others. In Ontario Canada where I live the only restrictions on parents seem to be that you cannot give them a symbol e.g., @ or a numeral e.g., 8 as a name. However, before we begin to think that this provides complete free rein to parents, the courts can rule on children’s names “in the best interests of the child” when requested to do so. Nicknames, informal as they are, are not subject to any restrictions.
They regulate dogs’ names, don’t they?
Naming dogs though is regulated, as is the case for most animals where purebred pedigree is important. The Canadian Kennel Club specifies that a purebred dog’s registered name can only be up a maximum of 30 letters including spaces. The first name must be the name of the kennel into which the puppy is born and the second name usually has some association with the sire or the dam of the litter. Any further name is at the discretion of the owner. Of course the owners seldom call their dogs by any of these names and give them pet names or “nicknames” in addition to the registered name.
With my ex-wife I once co-owned a Tibetan Terrier which we registered as “Harrowdene’s Shah Chiubacca.” His nickname was “Chiui” although I am quite sure that he was unaware of the cleverness of both his registered name and the spelling of his nickname. Keep in mind this was around the time of the original release of Star Wars. No matter, while he wasn’t a particularly smart dog he did live a good long life (18 years) and demonstrated before he left this earth that he had a soul worthy of respect. On the evening he died, a Sunday as I recall, he was being boarded at a kennel. About 9 pm, Anne suddenly told me to call the kennel. I knew this kennel and said that they would not be open and they did not answer the phone after hours. So I didn’t phone. The next day we learned that Chiui passed away (peacefully in his sleep) overnight. In order to keep myself sane, I tell myself that there was nothing that could have been done to avoid his death. Anne does seem to have a connection with the animal world that few others have and she is one of very few individuals who could ever receive such a communication. I believe his call out to her was simply a farewell to our collective family for the care and love he received over the years.
Gardens and nicknames
Gardeners know nicknames (and not just Cassandra “Mrs. Greenthumbs” Danz either) as gardens are filled with both scientific rigour and common names. The binomial system of taxonomy for plants uses one Latin name to indicate the genus of the plant and another to indicate the specific name or epithet. For example, Rudbeckia hirta is the Latin scientific name for Black-eyed Susans, which is the common name (or nickname.) There are many nicknames in the garden as gardening is an activity in which all sorts of folks are engaged. You don’t need to know Latin to garden and it is a good thing too because learning the formal Latin scientific names is a challenge for most of us I think – I can remember some but draw a total blank on others. Of course learning the scientific names is a great mental exercise in the ongoing efforts of Parkies and the elderly in general to ward off dementia. (I hate Sudoku and crosswords.) Be careful though, as with humans, there are often many different common names for the same plant and as we shall see, different names for virtual triplets.
Turtleheads (Chelone glabra) are also known as balmony, bitter herb, codhead, fish mouth, shellflower, snakehead, snake mouth, and turtle bloom. It is part of the Figwort family (Scrophulariacea.) In Greek mythology, there was a nymph named Chelone who insulted the gods; in punishment, she was turned into a turtle. The flowers of this plant are said to look like the heads of turtles. Glabra is from the Latin word meaning smooth because of the lack of hairs or texture on the stems and leaves. (Source: US Department of Agriculture Forest Service)
Monkshood (Aconitine napellus) of the family Ranunculaceae has many alternate common names including Aconite, Napel, Blue Aconite, Blue Rocket, Casque-de-Jupiter (Cap of Jupiter), Goatsbane, Wolfsbane, Helm, Hex, Odins Hut, Ra-dug-gam’dzim-pa (Tibetan), Thora Quasi Phtora Interitus (Latin, ‘doom’), Trollhat (Nordic.) Source: www.entheology.com. All parts of the Monkshood plant, especially the roots, are poisonous and gloves are advised when handling it. Fortunately, it has a very bitter taste (or so I am told as, not surprisingly, I have never tried it) that alerts one to not ingest it. Monkshood prefers woodland conditions and it grows reasonably well in deep shade under a very old apple tree at the foot of our gardens. It blooms in late fall and we can count on it being in flower on Hallowe’en – a suitably scary time for a scary poisonous plant.
Orange Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva,) is from the family Xanthorrhoeaceae and is also known widely as Tiger Daylily, Ditch Lily, July Lily, Tawny Daylily, Railroad Daylily, Roadside Daylily, Outhouse Daylily, or Wash House Daylily among others. As they are so common in so many settings that are not formally cultivated, these lilies masquerade as native plants but they are originally from Asia and introduced into North America in the early 1900s. You can always spot an old farmyard long after the house and barn are gone by the colourful patches of “Tiger Daylilies,” a patch of rhubarb, and some lilac shrubs – three organic monuments to the bygone era of homesteading. As you undoubtedly have already noticed, many of their common names are indicative of that history. Today, many consider these Ditch Lilies to be invasive plants threatening the native environment. They do spread quickly through root rhizomes and it is imperative to maintain their boundaries regularly. However, the term invasive is one that is open to interpretation. For an interesting challenge to the dominant view see Ken Thompson, Where Do Camels Belong? Why invasive species aren’t all bad, Greystone Books, 2014.
The Ditch Lilies in our garden serve to remind us of our youth and the flower and vegetable gardens tended by farming wives (primarily) and working folk in cities. In Ontario, they bloom reliably on July 1 and on a daily basis until the end of the month. In some vain attempt to break free of that heritage we do have several hybridized day lilies adding an entirely different dimension to daily daylily life blooming later in the summer. It may be heresy to some but our gardens are a melange of native, non-native, hybridized, and, yes, invasive, varieties of many different plants.
Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba,) Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta,) and (huh?) Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida var. Goldstrum) are of the family asteraceae (aster.) These are three of the some 25 species of Rudbeckia in North America. Most people are not going to see many differences in these three plants and they refer to them indiscriminately as Brown-eyed or Black-eyed Susans. Of course, if they were human, triplets might object to being called the identical nickname, wouldn’t they? And if we anthropomorphize (wicked word eh?) a little more, I prefer to call them Brown – eyed Susans as Black – eyed Susans sounds kind of abusive.
Why should we pay attention to differences? Well for one thing, it does assist in designing the type of “look” or “image” you want your garden to project, and the way your garden reproduces itself. I confess that I don’t usually pay much attention to differences in the Rudbeckia as I am mostly concerned with assisting the garden to grow according to its natural plan, intervening as little as possible but intervening nonetheless to ensure that the garden is not choked out with other noxious plants. In other words, I am not trying to recreate an identical garden year after year as much as I am trying to permit natural tendencies in a controlled way. Undoubtedly, this statement will drive the native plant purists to distraction and will endlessly irritate the formal horticulturists because gardens of this type may appear a little “unkempt,” but it is an accurate description of how I garden.
Rudbeckia hirta is commonly called Black-eyed Susan or sometimes gloriosa daisy and is usually grown as an annual, biennial or short-live perennial. It is relatively short (24 inches) and some varieties may be hardy to zone 3 but often it is grown as an annual in northern climes. It is a common native wildflower in many U.S. states. A coarse, hairy, almost weedy plant, it has daisy-like flowers with bright yellow to orange-yellow rays and a dark chocolate-brown center.
Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ was the 1999 Perennial Plant of the Year growing to a height of 18 to 30 inches – a bit shorter than the species Rudbeckia fulgida that grows to 36 inches. It is also commonly called “Brown-eyed Susan” or sometimes “Orange Coneflower” even though its petals are usually yellow and is hardy down to zone 3.
Rudbeckia triloba (Brown-eyed Susans) have a more profuse bloom of smaller on e- two inch flowers and usually have fewer rays per flower as the basal leaves are often three leaflets, and sometimes each of the three also divided (hence the Latin triloba.) Their centres may begin as black and fade to brown. It is a short-lived perennial and hardy to zone 4 and possibly zone 3 under the right growing conditions. .
As I said earlier, I prefer to call them Brown-eyed Susans because Black-eyed Susans seems rather violent, but let’s not get carried away with garden political correctness. Brown-eyed or Black-eyed is good enough for most people. Their golden yellow petals arrayed around a dark centre can lift the darkest of spirits when viewed en masse from a short distance. They are prolific self-seeders so we always have several clumps migrating around the garden from year to year.
Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is considered to be a weed by most people and would meet a hasty demise at its first sighting in most urban and suburban perennial or vegetable gardens. It is usually found in waste spaces, ditches, roadsides, along railroad rights of way, in gravel soil near, but not too near, swamps and sloughs. It is considered to be a pioneer plant, one of the first to pop up in regeneration after a forest fire for example. It likes direct sunlight and abhors shade. It can grow up to 10 feet tall but in our garden, which has a fair bit of shade, it grows only to 3 – 6 feet at best. Most people think it is an ugly weed with its large furry leaves and a tall spike for a flower head. But unlike Lupins, the small, pretty, yellow florets open only five or six at a time for one day at a time, giving it a decidedly unfinished look, or a look that promises to be something spectacular, but never is.
The mullein is native to most continents but is non-native and considered a weed in North America, New Zealand and Australia . Nevertheless, it is used in a variety of herbal medicines, particularly as an astringent and emollient. It is categorized as invasive, competing with native plants, but it is far from aggressive. It likes open scrabble gravel soil so it is rarely competition for tended gardens that are far too luxurious and crowded. Still, this biennial will pop up from time to time if the seeds, which require winter dormancy to germinate, find adequate infertile conditions.
The mullein has a wide variety of quite descriptive nicknames (over 40 in English alone by some accounts) including: “cowboy toilet paper,” “Indian rag weed”, “bullicks lungwort”, “Adams-rod”, “hare’s-beard”, “ice-leaf” “woolly mullein”, “velvet mullein”, “blanket mullein”, “beggar’s blanket”, “Moses’ blanket”, “poor man’s blanket”, “Our Lady’s blanket”, “old man’s blanket”, “feltwort” and “flannel”.
Whatever you call it, I don’t mind if one or two show up for a garden party at our place. They arrive uninvited to be sure but they are interesting company and make for great conversation as they mingle with other more high brow guests. Keep in mind that for the mullein to grow at all in your garden depends on you recognizing the seedlings so that they are not weeded out in any rush to spring clean your garden of weeds. Resist the “tsk, tsk” of the neighbourhood garden purist who sprays and pulls his/her garden and lawn to within an inch of its life. As a matter of principle and in solidarity with all native and non-native plants, I stand in opposition to fanatical or harsh over weeding. Some good friends are lost in that process.
Are sobriquets bouquets of flowers?
I just can’t end this section on gardens without talking about “sobriquets” which just means a descriptive name or epithet – a nickname in other words. However, for the life of me I can’t get it out of my mind that a sobriquet should be a bouquet of flowers for non-drinkers. Perhaps, “Lemonade Lucy” would have several “sobriquets” on the tables when she served tea at the White House.
However, as I begin this fanciful digression, it occurs to me that “sobriety” has two slightly different but complementary meanings i.e., not being drunk and seriousness. After a cursory review and due consideration of the many features of this particular blog post, I have determined that there are two flowering plants (Azalea and tulips) ideally suited to represent my (incorrect) interpretation:
1) In Victorian times the Azalea was a symbol of temperance. In fact, even today some flower shops carry an arrangement specifically named “Symbol of Sobriety” and I have seen Alcoholics Anonymous Chapter pins incorporate flowers into their distinctive circle and triangle design. There are many other modern day meanings for the Azalea but I couldn’t let the history re: struggles for sobriety and the connection to the Temperance Movement pass unnoticed in my search for my version of a “sobriquet.”
2) The tulip seems to have been adopted as a symbol of sobriety in its second meaning of seriousness as well. Not surprisingly, it has a connection to the Netherlands (What tulip doesn’t?) but, unexpectedly, it also is central to understanding the “seriousness.”
In 1636 – 1637 “tulipmania” struck the Netherlands. It is widely described as the world’s first financial bubble and subsequent crash as speculators drove tulip bulb contract prices (really a futures market) to incredible heights only to have the markets crash sinking the economy into crisis. I won’t go into details but until that point the Dutch economy was booming and Amsterdam was one of the richest cities in the world. Most analyses are that Dutch society, built on a religious and cultural foundation of Calvinism, reverted to its religious roots to recover from this Golden Age of extravagance and the shock of the tulip crash. In other words, it returned to ‘societal sobriety.’ [There are alternate analyses that suggest that the crisis was not really “mania” driven but a rational response to the government’s intended intervention in the economy where firm contracts would be cancelled, converting them into “options” instead. I leave it to the economists out there to explore or elucidate further.]
This diversion of course isn’t really a diversion. It is merely taking an alternate “scenic route” leading us back to Parkinson’s disease. In 1981, J.W.S. Van der Wereld, a Dutch horticulturist with Parkinson’s disease, developed a distinctive tulip, red with white-feathered edges on the petals. Van der Wereld named his prized cultivar, the ‘Doctor James Parkinson’ tulip, (Tulipa Doctor James Parkinson) to honour the man who first described this medical condition and to honour the International Year of the Disabled. The Parkinson Disease Foundation (PDF) has been using the tulip as a symbol since the early 1980s. In April 2005 the red tulip was launched as the Worldwide Symbol of Parkinson’s disease at the 9th World Parkinson’s Disease Day Conference in Luxembourg. Parkinson Society Canada, its provincial and regional partners, and many other Parkinson’s organizations worldwide have adopted this prized tulip and it has become their most recognizable symbol whether depicted in realist or stylized form.
Red tulips are normally associated with true love and they have that image for me as well – even though my lover prefers burnt orange. But I also recognize the red with white-feathered petals of the Doctor James Parkinson Tulip as a symbol promoting awareness of PD, the seriousness of PD and the hope we hold for a cure and/or a major medical breakthrough such that PwP have a vastly improved quality of life.
Parkinson’s disease is a very sobering disease and I believe that other than the Grim Reaper himself, or the Devil if you believe in the Devil as my Baptist friend does, it is the most formidable opponent I will face in my lifetime. [I realize that there are other horrific diseases such as ALS, Huntington’s and terminal cancers. I am not in any way diminishing their severity here.] Parkinson’s is a petty thief much like “Fingers” Finnegan who creeps unknown into your kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom, stealing your life in small measures that are not, in and of themselves, felony crimes. Before you realize what is happening, it has become firmly entrenched in your brain, nerves and muscles and will shape the remaining years of your life. Our mission is to delay the petty thief, using all the tools we have at our disposal. Parkinson’s rarely commits the final act of murder, preferring instead to aid and abet Death in our final days, but is guilty as an accomplice nonetheless.
It is fitting then that my mis-labelled, mis-interpreted, and mal-defined “sobriquet’ should be a bouquet of Doctor James Parkinson roses and a bouquet of Azaleas, together symbolizing a clear head and a serious determination of will to survive.
I have had great fun and amusement romping through fields of nicknames and re-living (for me) a few stories that might be called tangential but I don’t believe they were ever dead ends. Given the rather strict parameters I have placed on the definition of nickname, I regrettably must accept that “The PD Gardener” is not truly a nickname for me as it has not been legitimately ascribed by a third party or parties. But perhaps, with a little more time and more use by others, it will evolve into one. To tell the truth, Anne has called me “Mr. Marshall,” for years. I don’t object to this name as it really is my name with a formal title, but in my mind, “Mr. Marshall” is reserved for my paternal grandfather as my grandmother, for as long as I knew her, referred to him as “Mr. Marshall.”
I hasten to point out that there is no admission of defeat or submission to Parkinson’s in my desired identification as “The PD Gardener.” Parkinson’s does not own me. “The PD Gardener” merely describes my principle characteristics at this time of my life and, wouldn’t you agree, it is infinitely more accurate and appropriate as a nickname than “Sidney Slump from the City Dump?”
Arrrrggghh! The nicknames just keep on coming – from everywhere, including drug lords, wrestlers from my youth, cricket players and besieged Canadian Senators: – Joaquin“El Chapo” Guzmán (drug lord,) “Haystacks” Calhoun (wrestling,) “Whipper Billy” Watson (wrestling,) Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon (wrestling,) Lawrence “Larry” Shreve aka “Abdullah the Butcher”(wrestling,) Bret “Hitman” Hart (wrestling,) Shoaib “Rawalpindi Express” Akhtar (cricket,) Edward “Lumpy” Stevens (cricket,) Michael “Pup” Clarke (cricket.) In Canada, Senator Mike Duffy is on trial for 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust, bribery, and frauds on the government related to inappropriate Senate expenses. The larger than life Senator is often called, somewhat derisively, “Puffy Duffy” by ordinary Canadians although the media hardly ever refers to him that way.
Is there enough storage in my brain to process nicknames ad infinitum? We will need to break psychological barriers to the human understanding of the meaning of “elasticity” in order to fully contemplate the “prodigious” volume of nicknames being created and disseminated each day in a wired and WiFi world. I am certain I will return to this fertile ground in future blogs.
In the meantime, have look at some of my favourite nicknames in the appendices below
Appendix A: Nicknames (?) and Parkinson’s
These are some names that are commonly used by the Parkinson community in social media. Most are collective nouns, aliases, or nom de plume,
- “Parkie” – General nickname for someone with Parkinson’s
- “Shaking palsy” – a nickname for Parkinson’s
- PWP or PwP – Person with Parkinson’s
PLwP –Person Living with Parkinson’s
PD’er – Person with Parkinson’s disease
YOPI – Young Onset Parkinson’s Individual
YOPD – Young Onset Parkinson’s disease
- “Perky Parkie” @perkyparkie Alison Smith, Twitter and blogger
- “Parky wife” @parkinsonsdis Twitter
- “Parkinson’s Humour” @YumaBev Twitter, blogger, author
- “The PD Gardener” @pdgardener Twitter, blogger
Appendix B: A Few Lists of my All Time Favourite Nicknames
I have created four lists of my personal favourite nicknames: male and female for sports and non-sports personalities. I have limited myself to ten names in each list. This restriction makes it an extremely difficult exercise. Try it sometime.
My Top 10 All Time Favourite Sports Nicknames (Male)
- George Alexander ”Twinkletoes” Selkirk (baseball)
- Colin “Mrs. Doubtfire” Montgomery (golf)
- Andrew “#Hamburglar” Hammond (hockey)
- “Chucky Three Sticks” Charles Howell III (golf)
- Willie “Hit’em where they ain’t” Keeler (baseball)
- Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins (basketball)
- Max “Dipsy Doodle Dandy” Bentley (hockey)
- Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins (boxing)
- Harold “Red” “The Galloping Ghost” Grange (football)
- Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster (basketball)
My Top 10 All Time Favourite Sports Nicknames (Female)
- Michelle “The Big Wiesy” Wie (golf)
- Steffi “Fräulein Forehand” Graf (Tennis)
- Hayley “Chicken” Wickenheiser – altered from original “Chickenheiser” (hockey)
- Paula “The Pink Panther” Creamer (golf)
- “Can’t miss Swiss” Martina Hingis (Tennis)
- Anastasia “Nastia” Liukin (gymnastics)
- Chris “Ice Maiden” Evert (Tennis)
- Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino Venancio (mixed martial arts)
- Jeanette “The Black Widow” Lee (billiards)
- Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias (basketball, baseball, golf, track & field)
My Top 10 All Time Favourite Non-Sports Nicknames (Male)
- Charles “The Great Asparagus” De Gaulle
- Manfred “The Red Baron,” von Richthofen
- George S. “Ol’ Blood and Guts” Patton
- Admiral Harold M. “Beauty” Martin USN
- Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis
- Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel
- Calvin “Snoop Doggy Dog” Broadus,
- David “The Tiny Perfect Mayor” Crombie
- “Brangelina” Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
- Abraham “Honest Abe” Lincoln
My Top 10 All Time favourite Non-Sports Nicknames (female)
- Opal “Mack Truck” Long
- “Lemonade Lucy” Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford Hayes.
- “Windy Nellie” McClung
- Iva Toguri “Tokyo Rose” D’Aquino
- Florence “Lady with the Lamp,” Nightingale
- Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown
- Margaret “The Iron Lady” Thatcher
- Virginia “The Flamingo” or “Queen of the Gangster Molls” Hill
- Rafela “Miconia” or “The Big Female Kitten” D’Alterio
- Emma “Red Emma” Goldman
© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener)