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Mad Dog, as in ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis: The colorful history of a great American nickname

Retired Gen. James Mattis in a 2013 file photo.(Evan Vucci/AP)

On Thursday, at a post-election victory rally in Cincinnati, President-elect Donald Trump announced his pick for secretary of defense.

“We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis as our secretary of defense,” Trump said, as The Washington Post reported.

The Mad Dog in question was retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, who for more than 40 years served in the Marine Corps. The 66-year-old general, called a “warrior monk” by his peers for his depth of knowledge and lack of family — he never married — is also known to turn a memorable phrase, including: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

And if the nickname Mad Dog gives you pause, well, the retired general does not like it much either, according to NBC. (For his part, Trump seems fond of it, also using the name in his sole tweet about Mattis.)

Trump picks retired Marine Gen. James Mattis for secretary of defense

The nickname stuck to Mattis following the second battle of Fallujah, the hardest fight of the Iraq War. Here’s the Los Angeles Times, in a profile about the “confident, jaunty” general in April 2004, a few months before the battle: “Behind his back, troops call him ‘Mad Dog Mattis,’ high praise in Marine culture.”

A 1990 study of nicknames among 175 teenagers concluded that references to “strength, largeness, hardness, and maturity are typical of male nicknames,” listing “Mad-dog” as a masculine name along with “Bear Chaser, Billy Boy, Dave Atlas, Deerlegs, Dick …. Druggy Dougie, The Fox, GL Jim, Harpo” and “Lips.”

Though Mad Dog has cachet among Marines, a quick rundown of historic and fictional characters who also bore the name indicates why some would be reluctant to embrace it. (In late 16th century pubs, a strong brew was a “mad dog.” As a verb, it is slang for glaring. And, of course, a four-legged mad dog is a rabid one.)

As far as the Library of Congress database is concerned, the first and most famous Mad Dog was Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Coll, a mafia enforcer in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, was so named by New York Mayor Jimmy Walker after the hit man fatally shot a 5-year-old, struck by a wayward bullet in a mob fight.

That’s not to say celebrated Mad Dogs never lived. Sports players given the nickname Mad Dog may earn it through their athletic intensity but also because their surnames include “mad,” such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Mark Madsen, Canadian hockey player John Madden, MLB pitcher Gregory Maddux and New Zealand rugby winger Joe Maddock.

Mad Dogs have appeared many times in fiction, in narratives as diverse as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the Indonesian martial arts film “The Raid: Redemption”; there have been multiple in comics, including a New York police sharpshooter in the Marvel universe and a DC Comics serial killer committed to Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum.

President-elect Donald Trump says he has chosen retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis to be secretary of defense. (Video: The Washington Post)

And then there were the real-life Mad Dogs who fell somewhere in the middle.

Edgar “Mad Dog” Ross, a professional boxer with a 50-fight undefeated streak in the late 1970s, was remembered as a complicated character. “Edgar was as tough a human being as I’ve ever seen, and fearless,” his friend Jimmy Montgomery told the Tuscaloosa News, after Ross’s death in 2012. But Ross was described by others as “too mean for football,” using boxing as an outlet for violence.

While incarcerated, Canadian bank thief Roger “Mad Dog” Caron wrote a memoir, “Go-Boy!”, which sold 600,000 copies and earned Canada’s distinguished literature award, the Governor General’s prize, in 1977. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would go on to call Caron a “great Canadian,” according to the Telegraph, after the thief’s parole.

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