What’s in a name? Nicknames abound

The Sunday Column

Slick Willie, Tricky Dick, Broadway Joe, Calamity and Catfish.

These are nicknames assigned to national celebrities. In order, they describe Presidents Clinton and Nixon, football hero Namath, frontier woman and entertainer Calamity Jane and, finally, baseball Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter.

The first person who I knew with a nickname was Hollidaysburg boyhood buddy Johnny Casner, whose nickname was Tombstone. I don’t know who gave him that name or for what reason. I just joined his clique of friends who addressed him as Tombstone.

Eventually, he grew out of that nickname and reverted to plain old Johnny.

Nicknames are to formal names what slang is to formal language. Nicknames communicate familiarity and social closeness. A person is given, and retains, a nickname when his friends and family recognize the nickname has become more familiar than the person’s given name.

Nicknames are more common among men than women and are more common among the middle class than among the rich. This is not always true.

Boarding schools and other elite institutions usually have someone named Muffy or Trea. Trea started out as a prep school nickname for a boy who has the Roman numeral III at the end. But more recently, Trea became the 147th most popular name for American males.

Many of my 1952 Morrison Cove High School classmates had nicknames. Rodney Burket was Snobby, Lloyd Zook was Toad, Doris Stonerook was Snooks, Jack Blattenberger was Sharkie and Janet Nickum was Romeo (don’t ask).

Nicknames are not to be confused with diminutives, such as Don for Donald, Ron for Ronald or Pat for Patricia. Other familiar name distinctions that classify as nicknames are Dick for Richard, Bob for Robert, Betty for Elizabeth and Peggy for Margaret.

Politicians seem to like nicknames. It makes them seem more normal. So we have Bill (William Clinton), Jimmy (James Carter), Ike (Dwight Eisenhower) and Bud (Elmer Greinert Shuster).

There was once a member of the House of Representatives who had a very unique nickname, Eliot “Lunch Money” Engle, because his slight, bespectacled appearance was likely to have resulted in his being robbed by schoolyard bullies.

Locally, there is one nicknamed individual who has drawn my curiosity. I am a big fan of the nationally recognized Mirror sports section, edited by one Buck Frank, a person whom I have never met, who can take justifiable pride for the excellence of those pages. But I’m fairly certain that Buck is not a name on his birth certificate.

Judging by his photo and the time it would take to progress from rookie sports reporter to editor, I’m guessing he was born in the 1960s. The 10 most popular American boys names for that decade were Michael, David, John, James, Robert, Mark, William, Richard, Thomas and Jeffrey. I would wager his actual name is one of those. (Editor’s note: Buck Frank’s given name is Jerry).

As for me, it was during my Penn State Theta Xi fraternity years that I acquired not one but two nicknames. One was conferred on me by the pledges and another by my fellow brothers.

Neither is fit for printing in a family newspaper.

James Wentz writes a monthly column for the Mirror.