The Godfather: Peter Corris on nicknames
In Anglo-Saxon times, surnames did not exist and nicknames were used to help identify a person. Originally, these were called ekenames, as eke meant ‘also or added’. Over time, through changes promoted by writing and alternative pronunciations, the word ekename evolved into nickname.
I’ve never had a nickname. At times various people have called me Pedro or Pierre but these variants on the real name don’t count, just as ‘Smithy’ doesn’t for someone called Smith or ‘Biggles’ for Bigglesworth – although it did when applied to former Senator Gareth Evans.
There were nicknames among my schoolmates, all as far as I remember to do with the colour of their hair. At one primary school there was ‘Rusty’, a master of the now defunct stab pass; at another, ‘Big Bluey’ and a small boy known as ‘Tich’. At Melbourne Boys’ High School ‘Redda’ was Head Prefect and star athlete.
Kevin ‘Skeeter’ Coglan carried the nickname from his football days, when he played as a diminutive rover for Hawthorn and Collingwood, into his teaching career at Melbourne Boys’ High. I imagine some football-conscious masters addressed him as such. The headmaster during my first two years at the school was George Langley, CBE, DSO. Very old school with the requisite moustache and imperial bearing, he was known as ‘the Brig’. I wonder if the other members of staff used the nickname.
The only nicknamed fellow student I knew at Melbourne University was fellow Honours History candidate, the solidly built, companiable Keith, known as ‘Butch’. I never asked him why. I encountered two nicknamed academics at Melbourne. A senior lecturer in my time in English was Thomas Tomlinson, known as ‘Jock’ – although as far as I know he wasn’t a Scot. The Ernest Scott Professor of History was John La Nauze, termed ‘Jack the Knife’ for the severity of his academic judgment.
Some of the sporting heroes of my youth carried nicknames. Quite why Wally ‘Chooka’ May, Essendon ruckman, was so named I don’t know. The source of Greg ‘Spudda’ Tate’s monicker was more obvious. Ken ‘Muscles’ Rosewall was given the name as an ironic reference to his slender frame. Lightweight boxing champion Fred Flannery was called ‘Butterbox’ on account of the squarish shape of his head.
I’m not aware of others of my acquaintance with nicknames in the following years. At Monash University, where I taught, Professor AGL Shaw was known as ‘Aggle’, which might just qualify. I addressed him as Professor; he was congenial but not matey.
In the criminal fraternity nicknames are, or were, common, mostly conferred by the media. In the US ‘Pretty Boy’, ‘Legs’ and ‘Dutch’ are obvious examples. In the Australian context nicknames such as ‘Paddles’, ‘Neddy’ and ‘Jockey’ spring to mind.
Are nicknames still as common as they once were? Are there still ‘Blueys’? Are short people still called ‘Tich’ and ‘Lofty’ and are tall ones called ‘Tiny’ still to be found? There were a few around when I was young, but it’s a long time since I’ve heard of anyone called ‘Nobby’ Clark.