The Demise of the Nickname

A bright morning always carries with it a sense of optimism in which to approach the new day- and not just in June when, for us teachers, the summer holidays are but a few sleeps away.

My twenty minute drive to work most mornings signs off with me turning off the Oldpark Road and onto Ardoyne Avenue, where I often spot one of my past pupils making his way to his post-primary school the shy side of eight o’clock. It always brings a smile to my face. He was never an early riser when he occupied a seat behind one of the desks in Room 21 for the two years he called me his teacher.

The boy, now a young man, was once nearly lost to us due to serious health reasons, but he has fully recovered and continues with a life filled with hope and promise evident in his bright eyes and confident pace.

I can recall that, during his period in my classroom, he had a nickname which seemed to have stuck for a number of years. Perhaps he still answers to it today.

Nicknames appear to be in terminal decline.

Perhaps it is the age of perpetual vigilance with regard to potential bullying that has slowly killed off the nickname, but I have a sense that we have lost something which added colour and spice to many lives.

In schools today, it is rare to hear children refer to their peers or even teachers with nicknames. That isn’t how I remember things when I sat on the other side of the table.

Many books from my childhood included characters known by their nicknames, and nicknames were commonly heard in the classroom, playground, youth club and on the streets.

I answered to the name of ‘Yank’ when I played handball in the courtyards of St Mary’s CBGS Barrack Street each and every break and lunchtime during my early post-primary schooling.

In my class could be found a ‘Doggy’ and a ‘Mousey,’ the latter baptizing the former as a defiant statement that he would not stand wholly apart as being named for a non-human living creature.

Names were conferred with more than a touch of irony, for Mousey was anything but meek and remained a colourful character large in stature and life throughout and beyond school years. Doggy still carries his name to this day.

In the old, high windowed classrooms another pupil answered to the name of ‘Bucket’ due to him bearing a resemblance to Charlie Bucket, the famed acquaintance of Willy Wonka and creation of Roald Dahl.

The teachers included a legendary Christian Brother nicknamed ‘The Whizz’ because of the speed with which he would appear when trouble brewed in the playground.

One of the most colourful and inspiring teachers I had the privilege to cross life paths with, ‘Slim Jim’, was given his name on account of his physical demeanour being anything but slim.

Discussing this with friends of a similar vintage and beyond, I learned of many colourful stories of famed nicknames. My favourite was a lad apparently known as ‘Sock-it-Twomey,’ a play on the catch phrase made famous in the late 60s comedy series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

A priest recently reminisced during a conversation on this topic with me about time spent as a youth in the Catholic Young Men’s Society Bowling club in Dublin. The club actually had a Nickname Committee, which would determine whether or not nicknames conferred upon individuals were deemed acceptable or not, the rule of thumb being “The name ought not to be hurtful but need not be complimentary,” a great way of putting it!

One young man by the surname Vickory earned the nickname ‘The mouse’ due to his surname rhyming with ‘Hickory’ in the famous nursery rhyme beginning ’Hickory Dickory Doc, the mouse ran up the clock.’  A teaching colleague today with a maiden name of Doherty was similarly known as ‘Hickory Dickory.’

Of course, nicknames were not always given with benign intent.

I can recall one contemporary having the nickname ‘Nigs’ because his skin was slightly darker than the rest of his peers. A friend informed me recently that a classmate was called ‘Chucker’ (as in spear chucker) for similar reasons throughout his schooling.

Other children spent their formative years answering to names which disparaged their physical features and appearances, and it is for these reasons that a culture of intolerance to any name calling rightly developed and set in across our schools.

Life has changed in many ways over a generation. We are in an age of children’s play dates. Shielding our children from experiencing any feelings of anxiety is an understandable instinct for parents and for those we task with looking after the education of our children. Of course, the reasons for that are sincere and most often very appropriate, but in the process of developing this new ever vigilant culture the nickname has become, for many, a thing of the past.