October 29, 2014

dog-catThe first writing tool I ever learned came from my city editor Mike Foley: “Get the name of the dog.” What he could have added, but didn’t: “…and get the dog’s nickname, too.”

When it comes to characters in stories, nicknames are as important as names – maybe more important. Behind every nickname there is a story.

Let’s begin with the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology and definition of “nickname.” The Anglo-Saxon work “eke” means “also”; the phrase eke-name, then, means “also name” or “another name.” When you add the indefinite article, you get “an eke-name” and over time the “n” switches over, giving us “a neke-name” or finally “a nickname.”

The definition in the OED: “A name or appellation added to, or substituted for, the proper name of a person, place, etc., usually given in ridicule or pleasantry.” This is followed by historical uses of the word in literature, including this sentence from 1710 in which Joseph Addison writes in The Tatler of a peculiar physician: “He unfortunately got the Nickname of the Squeaking Doctor.” (More about this doctor later.)

We once had a grey cat named Voodoo. When we acquired another cat – this one black and white – we named her Abracadabra to continue the magical associations. That five-syllable name was shortened to Abbie. But part of her life story included the fact that she was discovered by a neighbor on Interstate 275, so her nickname became Highway. After a while, she developed a medical condition and suffered the indelicate and embarrassing nickname: Worms.

My youngest daughter Lauren was named after the actress Lauren Bacall. She has attracted many nicknames, each with a story behind it: Lulu, Lou, Lolly, Lollychops, and Lala.

If you would follow me into my favorite coffee shop, The Banyan, you would be surprised that no one there – server or customer — calls me Roy. There I am GoGo. When I first entered the shop, I looked around and blurted: “This place would be perfect if it had margaritas and GoGo dancers.” The proprietor heard me and said, “OK, what would you like to drink, GoGo?” And that was that. Inside the Banyan, GoGo no longer answers to the name Roy, and only refers to himself in the third person, as in, “GoGo would enjoy an iced latte – to go go.”

Nicknames are ancient, applied to people from all walks of life. Even kings and tyrants acquired extra names, from England’s unfortunate Ethelred the Unready (aka Ethelred the Ill-Advised) to the figure that inspired the Dracula legend, Vlad the Impaler.

This is where the nickname bleeds over from popular culture into history and journalism, especially in two conspicuous areas: sports and crime, from Pete Rose (“Charlie Hustle”) to John Gotti (“The Dapper Don”).

One of the best places in sports to find interesting and revealing nicknames is in the world of boxing. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates offers this litany in her nonfiction book “On Boxing.”

For the most part a boxer’s ring name is chosen to suggest something…ferocious: Jack Dempsey of Manassa, Colorado, was “The Manassa Mauler”; the formidable Harry Greb was “The Human Windmill”; Joe Louis was, of course, “The Brown Bomber”; Rocky Marciano, “The Brockton Blockbuster”; Jake LaMotta, “The Bronx Bull…” Roberto Duran, “Hands of Stone.”

In 2011 the FBI conducted what was described as the “largest organized crime bust in New York history,” involving 100 mob figures from five famous crime families. Writing for the Village Voice, Joe Coscarelli thumbed through the list of the indicted and was struck “that these dudes have great nicknames.”

He listed his 20 favorites, which included: Tony Bagels, Johnny Bandana, Hootie, Meatball, Vinnie Carwash, Baby Fat Larry, Jimmy Gooch, Cheeks, and Fatty.

Digital technology has ushered in an age of alternate online identities, which include self-selected handles and nicknames. A weird chapter in my book “How to Write Short” examines the use of such names in dating profiles. I wrote:

I read about fifty profiles from women, and the first thing I learned is that your user name is important, a form of short writing in and of itself. I did not understand this before I listed FluffyZorro as my handle, which sounds like the name of a backup singer for the Village People. So among the women who are supposedly ready to hear from me, there is suzy, Julie, love, jellybelly, lisa, pina, purplerose, BethWithGreenEyes, cuttincutie, kisses48, sexpo, truevine, lovingheart, Filipina Heart, juicygem, twinklestarmama, and sandspur 007.

Please don’t judge me too harshly for confessing my preferences among these names. I must say I’d be curious about jellybelly for her willingness to take risks, BethWithGreenEyes for her good judgment in calling attention to her best feature, and twinklestarmama for…I have no idea. On the other hand, plain names strike me as too safe, and juicygem and sexpo scare the hell out of me. I am conflicted about sandspur 007. That number might make her a James Bond fan – good – but sandspur suggests she may be too sharp and clingy.

The next time I write a profile about someone, I plan to ask the main character, and those who know that person, about nicknames. I’m persuaded that the history of a person’s nicknames turns out to be a kind of language shorthand to their personal history, interests, family, values, behaviors, and connections. In short, a valuable resource for any writer or reporter.

Oh, about that character, in Addison’s gossip piece from 1710. Turns out a woman named Mrs. Young decided she wanted to be a physician, impossible at the time because of her gender. So she masqueraded as a man. She tried her best to disguise her voice so she could recite “Take these pills” with authority. Too often, it appears, her voice cracked. Though her impersonation was not revealed until her death, her voice earned the nickname “The Squeaking Doctor.”

See, every nickname has a story hiding inside it.

Dear Readers, help me prove my point and add some fun to the process. Give me your examples of: 1) your interesting nickname and the brief story behind it, or 2) interesting nicknames you have discovered of the characters you have written about. Send them to me at: rclark@poynter.org. Anything you send might appear in a future column.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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