When old Pepiseshemenefer was the royal treasure in Egypt 4,600 years ago, his friends probably got tired of saying, "Please peel me a grape, Pepiseshemenefer," or "Your goofy old goat is devouring my toga, Pepiseshemenefer!" He was called "Senni," and when he died that's what they wrote on his tombstone. "Senni" was Pepiseshemenefer's nickname.
Nicknames are as old as the hills; older, in fact, than Christian names and surnames. The most primitive man probably sat around the cave dreaming up nasty things to call his neighbor. But nicknames have not survived the centuries just because of their nastiness.
No, nicknames are useful, essential in fact, because they correct deficiencies in given names, and they're fun. (The Wood "nickname" is itself a nickname; a corruption of the archaic word "ekename," which merely means an additional name describing physical or mental characteristics).
We have nicknames for our food, for homes, our pets, our kids, our heroes and athletes; nicknames for communities, cities, states, schools, colleges, companies; nicknames for nationalities; races and whole countries. When the United States went to war in 1918, the most pressing thing on Gen. Pershing's mind was what the troops would be called when they went ashore in France.
The Germans were the "Jerries"; the French were the "Poilu"; the English were the "Tommies," and Pershing wanted something kind of catchy for his troops. "Sammies, (after Uncle Sam) would be nice, and "Red Avengers" had a properly menacing ring to it. But the minute the boys stepped off the boat they were "Yanks" (probably after the Canadian-Indian word "Yangee," which meant (English), and even Pershing was utterly powerless to change it.
That's the first law of nicknames: If it fits it sticks.
Take Earl L. Jorgenson, of Rochester, Minn. He is president of the Kahler Hotel Corp. and known to all as "Nosey" or "Buttonose." Some would say the nickname describes the configuration of Earl's nose, although he doesn't think there is anything very distinctive about it. He said he had nothing to do with -- but nothing against -- the choosing of a nickname that has stuck with him for more than 50 years.
Jorgenson's nickname is unusual only in that it is attached to someone in his executive position.
According to John Mcdonald, a nickname researching psychologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, nicknames are more common among blue-collar workers who are much more likely to carry the names from childhood into adulthood -- and then usually by mutual consent. If a fellow who was called "Stinky" while a threet-foot 5-year-old does not appreciate the name after having grown into a 6-foot-10 inch 20-year-old, his peers should probably stop calling him that.
There is an old Chinese proverb that asserts, "If a man has no nickname, he never grows rich." That makes sense. There is something immediately reassuring about the fellow who says," "My name is Elmer but most people call me 'Dizzy.'" That tells you that he is someone who is probably sociable and perhaps even trustworthy.
On the other hand, another proverb says, "A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man." Richard Nixon, for instance, early in his career became "Tricky Dicky." His Secretary of State Henry Kissinger fared a bit better with "Henry the K."
People in high places cannot escape nicknames that are sometimes bru tally frank. President Grover Cleveland was "Big Beefhead"; Gen. Douglas MacArthur was known as "Doug-out Doug"; Theodore Roosevelt was "Teddy"; Harry Truman was "The Haberdasher"; and Charles de Gaulle (who said of himself, 'De Gaulle is not to the right, De Gaulle is not to the left, De Gaulle is not to the center; De Gaulle is above') was known in France as "The Gawky Madman."
But be they good or bad, nickname expert Elsdon Smith wrote a decade ago, nicknames have a maddening tenacity and the hardest thing one can do is to shake a bum one.
The whole field of professional sports blooms with magnificent nicknames. Who would remember Lawrence Berra were he not called "Yogi?" or George Herman unless he were Babe Ruth? Or Joe Jackson unless he were "Shoeless?" Or Elroy Hirsch if he were not "Crazy Legs?" or Ed Jones if he were not "Too Tall?"
Other nicknames from the sports pages:
Marty "Silvertone" O'Neill, Grady "Butcher Boy," Adkins, Ivy "Poison" Andrew, "Pug" Lund, "Bump" Elliott, John "Trolley "Line" Butler, Elton "Iceberg" Chamberlain, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, "Daffy" and "Dizzy" Dean, Pearce "What's the Use" Chiles, George "Pea Soup" Dumont and Sal "The Barber" Magile.
Football players get nicknames like "Broadway Joe" Namath, "Duck" White (because of the size of his feet), Bill "Boom-Boom" Brown, Carl "Moose" Eller, and Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.