Lip Service in Our Time
The other night, The Weezel and I were snug as bugs between the cool sheets, half-dozing and idly chitting about the merits of sending Aunt Ethel flowers on the event of her one hundred and Third birthday. Weezel said that it might be a waste of money because of Ethel’s poor eyesight. We chatted about definitions of the words pragmatic, thrifty and cheap. I was just dozing off thinking that if Ethel had had her corneas rebuilt instead of that ‘female’ surgery last year…when I heard; “it’s not as if we didn’t have plenty when we was growin’ up; Cousin Bubba had a nursery and…”
“Yeah we had plenty of flow…”
“No, not that: You actually have a cousin named Bubba?”
“Well yes, but he doesn’t like to be called that any more, fact is; I don’t even know how he even got that name, his name’s Andrew”.
I started to drift off again thinking about the nicknames around me in my youth and otherwise. I unearthed enough theory to write a thesis and it’s kept me up nights.
Nom de nique is from the Greek nicken, to nod or wink, and its present form is from the Old English: neke-name for eke-name. I believe it to be the bastard child of slang.
Slang is all around us and we hear and witness it every day in every culture; of course most of us wouldn’t recognize slang in many foreign languages, (I’m not gonna go there) but I’m sure it’s there. Slang is a shortcut through language. Who of us upon hearing thoughts like: ‘Drove it like he stole it’, ‘Hotter than a snake’s ass in a wagon rut’, ‘Dumber than a box of rocks’, or ‘Pretty as a speckled pup on a red rug’ does not immediately pass go and collect two hundred dollars worth of visual? How about “All that meat and no potatoes?” “Think I can get fries with that shake?”
Indigenous Americans had slang and used it to name every thing around them, like Winnamucca, Minnesota, and ‘Tall Brave Who Eat Mushroom And Talk To Tree’. C’mon, where do you think Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse got their names? Fortune cookies?
Anyway, back to nicknames. In my definition nicknames are not forms of shortened names, such as Lori for Delores, Shelly for Michelle, Jim or Jimmy for James, or Stu for Stupid (add a descriptor word to them, like Jimmy Valentine, Flatfoot Jim, or Stupid Jerk-off and you’ve got something else going). I knew an Irish kid named Whitey; a Cuban named Blackey and a few Reds in my time. These are nicknames derived from physical attributes i.e. Lefty, PeeWee, Slow Eyed or Knobby. Again: Slim, Stubby, Twitch, Shorty, Gimp, and Thunder Thighs; these are all names that I can see and understand. My sister Alberta has always been called Bonnie, my sister Mary Joanne, Mickey, and kid sister Panagiota, Penny. Go figure.
I’ve seen nicknames in the media and music all my life: Scarface, Skinny Minnie, Flatfoot Floozy, Short Fat Fannie, Baby Face, Long Tall Sally, OO Poo Pa Do, and if you add descriptors you have Little Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Blind Lemon Johnson, Pretty Boy Floyd and Willie the dog faced boy.
There are also nicknames for temperaments: Shifty, Easy, Mellow, Hot, Feisty, Cuddly, Smooth and Asshole. And there are blanket nicknames that we give the world around us: Juicy, Betty, Case, Sweetie, Darlin’, Dude, Badass, Sly Fox, Bones, Elvis, Sugar Foot, Face, various canine terms and sometimes just plain ‘Sup baaaaby?’. There are also private nicknames that we use with loved ones like Sweet Cheeks, Sweet Darlin’, Sugar Tits and Honey Dripper.
There’s name names and there’s name games. Name games are like Sioux City Sue, Jake the Snake, Loose Lucy, Motorcycle Michael, Slammin’ Sammy Snead, Louie the Lump, Machine Gun Kelly, Billy the Kid, Easy Eddie, Broadway Phil, Sugar Ray, Dizzy, Duke and a boy named Sue.
Name names are when a person’s name is almost interchangeable with their nickname. The King, The Killer, The Songstress, The Iceman, The Chairman of the Board, the Godfather and the Queen of Soul. At work we have code names for management: The Preacher, Your Uncle, The Bulldog and Sparky (with all due respect) as well as for working areas: The Farm, Deuce Alley, The Gris Gris Room. I work with three Jennifers and names like Jen or Jenny are passe, instead they’re known as Jennifer/their last name or just ‘hot lips’.
Notice that very few if any movie stars use nicknames. They do use shortened names like Tom, Brad, Mel, Ben, Andy, Joe, Johnny but I think that’s to instill our confidence in them as people and mostly an affectation of male actors.
Also it almost seems obligatory to give a nickname in our TP obituary column (look for yourself, I ain’t getting sued).
We give names to our pets, for in essence, we can’t really know what their real names are; except, all dogs will go by the name of ‘Rover’, male cats can always be called ‘Tom’ and females will always answer to ‘Minnou’. ‘Old Nick was a term reserved for mules and who knows where they get the names for racehorses.
Point being, the Oxford English Dictionary took over seventy years to complete. It defines over a half a million words, and it is a work that can never be completed as long as any person speaking this language holds breath in their body. It was put together largely by the efforts of a professor and a convicted madman/murderer from the confines of an asylum. As long as you can take or make a word to describe your reality our definition of our language continues its evolution. Listen, learn. Your ‘Round’: that’s someone that lives near you. ‘Bounce’: getting out fast. ‘Betty’: a desirable good looking woman. ‘Cool’: a word with an attitude connotation, you either have it or you don’t; something that you cannot learn.
Here I am, drifting off to sleep, when the Weezel’s voice breaks through my reverie miasma. “Don’t you want to know what Bubba’s Daddy’s name was?
“Sump”. She says, “That’s short for Sumpter…… G’night Polecat.” And Goodnight to us all.