Ashley Davies: Losing battle to choose a nickname

Dockers had choice monikers, mostly indicating attitudes to work, such as Head Waiter and London Fog, for someone never likely to lift. Picture: Getty Images
Dockers had choice monikers, mostly indicating attitudes to work, such as Head Waiter and London Fog, for someone never likely to lift. Picture: Getty Images
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THERE’S NO point trying to influence what people call you - they will make their own decision whether you like it or not, writes Ashley Davies

For longer than he would care to admit, my sweet big brother Kevin tried to get people to call him Chevy. He signed his letters Chevy, and Chevy was inked on his pencil case and rucksack; probably scratched on to his ruler with a compass as well. But, like cheap wallpaper applied to a wet wall, it didn’t stick. A few years later, after spending a few years in Indonesia, he started signing his name “Wayan”, which means “first-born” in Balinese. He had limited success with that one too, outside the family anyway. However, he did become known locally as Twan Pohon – “Mr Tree” – on account of his relative height. It might not have had the pizazz of Chevy, but at least he was on the nickname map.

As with your sexuality, eye colour and male pattern baldness, you just don’t get to choose what people call you. Seinfeld fans will remember a period when the charisma cavity George Costanza tried to get people to call him T-Bone. And in Joseph Heller’s book Good as Gold, an unappealing character tries to become known as Skip. The response from the protagonist is: “Nobody gives themselves nicknames… other people give them nicknames because they fit. And you will never be a ‘Skip’. The last thing in the world you could ever be is a ‘Skip’.”

It didn’t work for them, and it won’t work for anyone else.

This week The Scotsman carried an obituary of Scottish-born Liverpool footballer Brian Hall, who was known in the dressing room as Little Bamber, after the then University Challenge host – because he had a degree. The other person in the team with such lofty qualifications – Steve Heighway - was called Big Bamber. Presumably Mr Gascoigne was only clever person they could think of.

Sportsmen – and it is usually men – tend to have nicknames woven from their names, often with the unambitious addition of a vowel at the end – a “y” round these parts and an “o” Down Under, but often going slightly further. There’s Neil McVittie, known as Biscuits, Abel “The Flask” Thermeus, Fitz Hall (known as One Size). Brian McClair was known as Choccy. Yeah, well done, guys. We see what you did there. Sports fans, accustomed as they are to the whiffy brew of hope and heartbreak, become more creative when their target has an obvious characteristic, coming up with monikers that are funny, cruel or both. Jason McAteer was known as Trigger, due to being differently gifted mentally, and Duncan Ferguson was often referred to as Duncan Disorderly. Former Hearts player Neil Pointon is known as “Dissa” (you have to put it before his surname).

Other professions have lovely traditions of nicknaming. Before their industry was torn apart, dockers had a particularly rich culture in this regard, usually because it was easier than remembering someone’s real name. Head Waiter was a popular name for a lazy person – because they were always waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting. See also London Fog – it never lifts. And a bloke who always worked Sundays was often called the Preacher or the Clergyman. Olympic Torch or Storm Lamp was the guy who never went out, and a night shift worker was often called the Bat. While Wet Match never strikes, Swan Vesta is always on strike, and the fellow who thought he’d lost a consignment of frozen mutton was called Beau Peep. My favourite from this area, though, is the poor guy who was warned to keep his mouth shut during his first week on the job because anything unusual he said would become his nickname for the rest of his working life. He took the advice, and was forever more known as the Quiet Man.

Teachers have a particularly tough time of it. I won’t repeat what we used to call some of our teachers because it feels too much like bullying – it was almost always a cruel exploitation of a physical defect, however minor, or a horrifying speculation on the legality of their sexual proclivities. On a lighter note, I do know of one unfortunate teacher whose trousers crept between his buttocks once or twice, so he was known for decades as Munch. If he ever heard the name I doubt he ever knew why.

Pupils themselves are not immune either, especially if there’s anything unusual in their name. A good friend, whose surname is Armin, got called Idi at school, but he’s grateful they didn’t follow through with an “o” and a “t”. Another friend was a fan of a particular brand of snacks at university and became known as “Cheese”, which wasn’t so bad in itself, but her surname was Dicks. I know someone else who for years was called Eggy because a raw egg once broke on her at a primary school event and she smelt of it for the rest of the day. Years later, as a teenager, she would be repeatedly humiliated by calls of “Eggy”, which has slanderous connotations if you don’t know the context.

While at university I knew someone who was known as Flatliner, because the only time he’d show any indication that he was alive was when people started discussing his favourite subject – recreational narcotics. I know of a woman who’s called Mash because her boyfriend’s nickname was Bangers, due to a poorly executed Rangers tattoo. I don’t even know if they’re still together but I bet she has to explain that a lot.

In cultures where there aren’t that many surnames to go around, nicknames are crucial. The Vikings used to perform ceremonies at which a nickname was conferred upon a person, though it’s not clear whether Thorstein Ill-Luck, Audin Thin-Hair or Eystein Foul-Fart had a party to celebrate theirs.

And in the Highlands, some people don’t even know their friends’ real names because they’re only ever referred to by their nicknames.

Me, I got off lightly because my name rhymes with stupid things. Lots of unconnected people call me Bash – even those who are unaware of my spectacular street-fighting skills. I always feel particularly loved, though, when my friend calls me Bashly Mavis. Kinda sassy, don’t you think?