What’s in a Nickname? Acceptance, Praise and Sometimes Offense

September 2, 2018 Updated: September 4, 2018

Nicknames serve several social needs for people who have been given them and for people who use them. For the nicknamed, they convey the person is accepted within a given group—or they wouldn’t have a nickname—and that they have a unique identity that is distinctive. (Think redheaded people called Red.) For the nickname user, they convey closeness and familiarity with the person and the world the person hails from.

Once upon a time, the Country and Western music world was especially rich with nicknames. Tom T. Hall was known as the Storyteller, George Jones as the Possum, Charlie Rich as the Silver Fox, Don Williams as the Gentle Giant and Hank Williams Jr. was of course Bocephus.

Since nicknames develop a life of their own, it did not necessarily matter what the Country singers thought of the nicknames. Don Williams said once on the radio he was baffled by his nickname since he was neither gentle or particularly tall to rate being called a giant. No one wants to look like a possum but George Jones resigned to his moniker. “When you’re called ‘The Possum’ … it stays with me. There’s no way I can ever live it down,” he said. (Cass Elliot of the 1960’s singing group the Mamas & the Papas, famously disliked her nickname of Mama Cass thought it was a no-brainer for the public to concoct.)

Then there’s politics. Ever since Huey P. Long, 40th governor of Louisiana in 1928 and a member of the United States Senate after that termed himself the Kingfish, nicknames have held a lot of sway in Louisiana elections. They even appear on election ballots and in advertising campaigns.

The nickname Bubba no doubt helped Edgerton Henry get elected and re-elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1968 to 1980 though he was and is far from the only Louisiana Bubba. The nickname “Lying Louie Lambert,” bequeathed upon Democrat Louis Lambert no doubt helped Republican Dave Treen become Louisiana governor in 1980—changing the state from blue to red. Former flamboyant Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards also had a nickname. He was known as the “Silver Zipper” because of his alleged womanizing.

Sometimes Louisiana nicknames can be blunt and even tactless. When I lived in New Orleans I knew at least two men whose nicknames were Fat and one whose nickname was Wheelchair. No euphemisms there!

Of course, the sports world is rich with nicknames which allow fans to convey their devotion to teams and love of players. The names are often originated by play-by-play announcers and quickly embraced by fans. For example, if you are a Chicago Cubs fan you know that Q means pitcher Jose Quintana, the Professor means pitcher Kyle Hendricks, KB means Kris Bryant, Riz means Anthony Rizzo and El Mago—Spanish for “the magician”—means Javier Baez. You couldn’t know the nickname unless you were watching the games so it verifies your fandom.

Yet few politicians have also inspired as many nicknames as Trump from Agent Orange to the Cheeto-In-Chief. Political nicknames are often deployed to achieve political ends, and in the current partisan climate, they are probably only getting started.

Martha Rosenberg is the author of the award-cited food exposé “Born With a Junk Food Deficiency,” distributed by Random House. A nationally known muckraker, she has lectured at the university and medical school level and appeared on radio and television.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.