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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Lots of unanswered questions about nicknames



Last year's endless GOP presidential primary season included two Ricks, a Mitt and a Newt. I thought a lot about nicknames.

Some past presidents have insisted on using their nicknames. William Jefferson Clinton was just plain Bill. Enemies such as radio talker Bob Grant called him Slick Willie. My pompous high school principal called himself Robert T. Levine. The kids deflated that label, referring to him as Bob, Bobby, or Bob-T.

On a campaign button, Ike fits much better than Dwight, Ditto for TR, LBJ and FDR.

Ike's veep -- and later a president -- Richard M Nixon became Tricky Dicky.

At the 1960 Democratic Convention (back when candidates were actually chosen at conventions), a Kennedy fan told the audience that "LBJ" on signs should be thought of as meaning "Let's Back Jack," not previous competitor "Lyndon Baines Johnson."

Jimmy takes up about the same space as James (Carter), but sounds much friendlier.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was called Jack, but JFK fit better in newspaper headlines. I don't know if the current president has a nickname (Barry?), but the New York Daily News frequently prints Bam. The next POTUS could be Hill.




Why do some really wussyful names like Melvin, give us such manly names as Mel?
  • Les is more (not less) manly than Leslie or Lester. (Detroit's TV Pawnbroker Les Gold got really pissed off when a customer assumed that his full name is Lester.)
  • Sly Stallone could kick Sylvester's ass.


Tony Soprano sounds much more macho than Anthony. Anthony Anastasio was Tough Tony, the younger brother of Albert Mad Hatter Anastasia. Machine Gun Kelly, Muscles and Sammy the Bull invoke much more fear and trembling than George Kelly Barnes, George Futterman or Salvatore Gravano. Crazy Joey Gallo is not someone to mess around with. Neither is Scarface (Al Capone, above).

Baby Face, Skinny Joey, Fat Dominic, Hymie, Louie Ha-Ha, Louie Lump Lump and Little Nicky are much less intimidating than Kid Blast, Killer Twist or Grim Reaper. Click for more mobster names.

Why do some names (e.g., Richard) spawn so many nicknames, (Rich, Rick, Dick)?

And some nicknames even have nicknames (Richie, Ricky, Dickie).

Why do some names that invoke ugly people (Gwendolyn) lead to nicknames that evoke cute faces (Gwen)?

Why so some nicknames like Peggy sound nothing like their full names, like Margaret? My father was called Bud or Buddy, but his legal name was Bertram. No one who knew him called him Bert. My mother is Rita. Only my father called her Reet. Rita's father was Julius Jacobs. He was frequently called Jay, and changed his name to Jay.


Why do some nicknames -- like Josh, Luke and Matt -- sound contemporary, even though the full names (Joshua, Lucas and Matthew) go back thousands of years? Isaac and Izzy both sound old-fashioned.

Why do some people never outgrow their childish names, like Sammy Davis and Stevie Wonder?


My company once employed two Davids. We decided that one would be Dave

Sometimes a nickname for one person becomes a full name for others.
  • Alexandra has given us Alex, Alix, Alexa, Allie, Ali, Lexy, Sandra, Sandy.
  • Elizabeth has a long long of spinoffs:  Betty, Bettie, Bet, Bett, Bette, Betta, Betsy, Betsey, Betsi, Beth, Bess, Bessie, Bessy, Bettina, Elsie, Elisa, Elsa, Eliza, Ellie, Elly, Ilse, Liz, Lizzy, Lizzie, Liza, Lisa, Lise, Lisette, Lizette, Lisbet, Lizbeth, Libby.
  • I know a man who was born Charlie (not Charles) and a Jake who is not really a Jacob.
Some nicknames cross the gender barrier. Jack and Jacky(ie) can be nicknames for Jacqueline or John. Chris goes with Christopher and Christina (who may also be Tina). 

Some names like Gregory, Oliver, Frederick, Allison, Charles, Leonard and Timothy are most often said by parents and teachers -- but friends say Greg, Ollie, Fred, Freddy, Al, Alli, Charlie, Chuck, Len, Lenny, Tim and Timmy.

If someone calls my office and asks to speak to "Mike Marcus," I know he never met me and is probably trying to sell me Wall Street stock or copy paper. I think only one person who actually knew me called me Mike. That was my father, so I didn't correct him. NOBODY calls me Mick or Mickey.


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