There’s a lot in a name, and potentially, even more in a nickname. Given names often reveal seemingly mysterious connections to the meaning of each life; Cutters who are surgeons, Woods who are carpenters and so forth. Nicknames, on the other hand, are bestowed later in life, and associated with physical attributes, behavior or job occupations. I don’t know the backstory of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, the former Chinese gang member now caught-up in the pay-to-play scandal of State Senator Leland Yee, but I sure like his nickname.
I’ve had a nickname or two myself over the years, one based on my last name and one, by all accounts, from outer space (or was it spaced out?). Barnett yields easily to Barney, and so I was called each summer on Cape Cod while attending boys camp. Being so close to Boston, the camp was filled with kids from Beantown, Brookline and Boston suburbs; the net result was that Barney came out sounding like “Bonnie.” That was fine with me, as I liked having a summer camp nickname.
My other nickname was “Bean” but it had nothing to do with summer camp or Boston. This one was bestowed during a hazily-remembered evening at college, in my case Rhode Island School of Design. For some reason that eluded me then and continues to elude me today, one of my intoxicated roommates decided I looked like a Green Bean. It might have been my hair. At the time, a freshman in 1966 and living away from home, I let my hair grow and upon occasion would style it just for fun. Yes, I once had a full head of hair. In any event, that particular evening it was all brushed forward, and Green Bean was the end result. In time, it morphed into just plain “Bean” and so I was called by many during my twenties. There are still some old friends of mine who call me Bean.
From press and media accounts the world of gangsters shows a particular fondness for nicknames. Shrimp Boy joins a list of the notorious, old and new; “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Scarface” Al Capone, “Bugsy” Siegal, “Diamond Jim” Colosimo, Louis “Lump Lump” Baronne. The list goes on and on. Mob nicknames are literally the stuff of legend.
Word is that “W” Bush loved nicknames and bestowed them regularly on friend and foe alike. Among those recorded and documented we find Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove, Vladmir “Pootie-Poot” Putin, Chris “Big Boy” Christie, Dick “Big Time” Cheney, and Silvio “Shoes” Burlusconi. I’m not sure how widespread this nicknaming habit is, but like mob monikers nicknames in politics seems strangely appropriate.
Nicknames can be a sign or affection or derision, can be widely known or kept nearly secret, and at the same time feel both amusing and frightening. There is a certain type of boundary crossed with nicknames, at once intimate and distancing. In some sense, nicknames are like magical incantations, powerful verbal images which our given names seem to lack.
The 15th Century English word “nekename” was used in reference to bestowing an additional name on someone, so this has likely been happening for a very long time. Regrettably, he’s not around to ask, but if he were I’ll bet Noah “Boat Boy” ben Lamech could provide some dandy insight on the topic.