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Page last updated at 13:29 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

What's in a nickname?

Known as Sting even by his mum, thanks to black and yellow pullover

By Oliver Brett
BBC News

The Asian polo player Prince Charles calls Sooty has defended the prince against accusations of racism. But the big problem with most nicknames is that those who they apply to don't get to choose them.

"I have to say," said Kolin Dillon, responding to the allegation that he had become a target of a racist slur, "that you know you have arrived when you acquire a nickname."

Mr Dillon, who it emerged is widely known by the sobriquet Sooty by his polo-playing friends, among them the future British monarch, said he had never taken any offence from the name.

It was a "term of affection with no offence meant or felt," he said.

Prince Charles
Prince Charles, aka Brian to Private Eye readers

The comment appears to have swiftly dampened the flames of what threatened to be another royalty racism inferno - just days after footage came out of Prince Harry using the word Paki.

But the clarification at least answers one question that can be asked of all nicknames - is it affectionate or abusive?

"No one really chooses their own nickname, even royals," says Robert Easton, author of The Good, the Bad and the Unready: The Remarkable Truth Behind History's Strangest Nicknames.

The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund is one of a handful of exceptions. His self-conferred appellation The Light of the World "sort of stuck" says Mr Easton. It's certainly more deferential than that given to the Byzantine emperor, Justinian II, otherwise known as "the slit-nosed one".

Egyptian names like Baldy, Lazy, Nosy, and Big Head have been recorded. And the third Roman Emperor, born Gaius Julius Caesar, like his famous adoptive great-great grandfather, would forever be known as Caligula ("Little Boot") on account of being brought up in a military camp and wearing miniature military footwear as a child. Andrew Delahunty, author of several books on the subject including the Oxford Dictionary of Nicknames, cites various reasons why the culture of nicknames is in such rude health today.

Punter, Gringo, Tarzan

"Among work colleagues and close-knit teams, nicknames - even uncomplimentary ones - can help to cultivate a sense of belonging and camaraderie," he says. "Some are purely descriptive, drawing attention to some physical characteristic, others pick up on some personal quality or attribute or pay tribute to an achievement or an amusing incident."

Audi badge with four rings
The Audi Chancellor - ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (four-times married)
Afghan - cricketer Mark Waugh, waited so long for test debut he was called 'the forgotten Waugh'
Lewis 'Scooter' Libby - ex-advisor to George Bush, 'scooted' around his cot as a baby

Coining a nickname for a boss or a celebrity "closes the gap between them and us" and can be a "way of poking a little fun at them and cutting them down to size.

"And it's difficult to shed them once they've stuck."

With the Sooty story in mind, some cultures are notably less sensitive about drawing on a person's race or appearance as inspiration for a nickname. In South America, a white ex-patriot will invariably be known as "Gringo" - but it would not be considered a term of abuse - while a thin person is "Flaco".

In some sports nicknames are a way of life. No member of the Australian cricket team is worth his salt until he has a pithy pet name - the captain Ricky Ponting, for example, is "Punter" due to his love of placing a bet.

Politics is no stranger to the spectacle, either. Think Tarzan (Michael Heseltine) and Bambi (Tony Blair). In this context, nicknames have no greater friend than the newspaper headline writer, for whom brevity is all. Hence Iain Duncan-Smith's diminishment to simple old IDS.

Margaret Thatcher's standing was never harmed by her epithet The Iron Lady. But history, at least, shows that deeper motives are often at play when it comes to flattering nicknames of those in power.

Good was bad

"John the Good [John II of France] was a horrible piece of work," says Mr Easton. "Either the name came from a historian because he wanted to stay in his good books or maybe he once did something good and that just stuck.

I hate being called the Boss
Bruce Springsteen

"Actually I think in this case it was the French being sarcastic - they love calling something something that it's not."

Conversely, William the Bad of 12th Century Sicily "was really good".

"He did lots of good things, like founding hospitals and being nice to his subjects. But the name was probably the handiwork of a historian who was trying to endear himself to William's successor," says Mr Easton.

It seems that both Madonna and Bruce Springsteen could empathise with the more prosaically named William I of Sicily. Neither is enamoured with their nickname, says Mr Delahunty.

"After Madonna married British film director Guy Ritchie, the British tabloid press started referring to her as Madge, jokily casting her as a suburban housewife," he says. "But it's been reported she doesn't like the nickname. In 2002 a front-page story in the Daily Star newspaper had the headline Don't Call Me Madge."

The defiantly blue-collar Springsteen, meanwhile, dislikes his moniker, The Boss.

"In the early days when he and the E-Street Band played gigs in small venues, it was Bruce's job to collect the money and pay the rest of the band," says Mr Delahunty. "This led them to start calling him The Boss, a nickname which has stuck."

Brian and Cheryl

"I hate bosses," Springsteen has complained since. "I hate being called the Boss."

Pop singer Madonna does not delight in the nickname Madge

Yet as any boss knows, when you contract out a job to someone else, you lose a crumb of control.

Witness Princess Diana's desire to be known as the Queen of Hearts. The name never really stuck and it's Tony Blair's posthumous christening of her as the People's Princess which has more traction with today's public.

So what of Prince Charles himself - a man who satirists and caricaturists haven't shied from drawing inspiration from?

"Private Eye always calls him Brian and Diana was Cheryl. But I think he will come to be known as Charles the Green, for his environmental concern," says Mr Easton.

Of all these nicknamed individuals, some would never have been addressed as such to their face, and others only by a close circle of friends.

However, few can have embraced their nickname as readily as Sting. When addressed by a journalist as Gordon, he replied: "My children call me Sting, my mother calls me Sting. Who is this Gordon character?"

Below is a selection of your comments.

Why don't Sting's children call him "Dad"?
Jeffrey Saunders, Brighton

According to Trivial Pursuit, Diana called Prince Charles "Fish face". Couldn't this be nationally re-adopted?
JA, Aberystwyth

I had a fair few nicknames at school. I hated them all. Regan (apparently I look like the possessed one from The Exorcist), Minnie (because I happen to be vertically challenged), Bookworm (which really explains itself) and various others which I have no inclination to remember. Ah well. What can you do?
Robyn, Cheshire

My maiden name, Robertson, was often confused with Robinson - and back when I was teaching, this brought Mrs Jam into being. Much nicer than many teachers' nicknames, I'm sure. Then, once married, and working in an office section of three Sarahs, you can guess... "Pompey" stuck. It certainly helped avoid a lot of confusion, and gave a real sense of belonging.
Sarah Portsmouth, Llandovery, UK

My husband had the nickname Garfield from his friends. Mainly because he was short, fat, loved coffee, lasagne, and - the kicker - a redhead. At some point I let the cat out of the back (excuse the pun). He loved it. Even his e-mail address reflects his nickname. He spent most of his school life deflecting comments about his red hair, now he laps it up with a nickname that best describes him.
LJ, Warrington, Cheshire

When my daughter was a baby I nicknamed her Little Pie. Now she is nearly 10, she is simply Pie. Whether she likes it or decides to answer to it depends on her mood or whether she is with her friends.
Ruth, Dorset

People who are bothered by being given a nickname should get out a little more. During my school years I was tango, foxtrot and prof. During the years I lived in Canada I was the limey and the teabag, my son was little teabag. There have been many more over the years but none of them printable.
Tony Dance, Newport Pagnell, Bucks

I dislike being called Mum (I prefer Mummy) so my older daughter calls me Mosher (I have no idea from whence it came) which I like because it is said with affection and it is a joke linking the two of us. She is rarely called by her name Charlotte but more usually Lolly, and her younger sister Phoebe is called Plob or Flobber-bobber. Nicknames are usually a way of being affectionate without being soppy and can serve as a uniting bond between friends or family showing you are part of that unit.
Nicola, Leeds

Nicknames start off at school as being just another way for children to be cruel to other children, but as they get older the names adapt and become a part of who they are. At school I was always called Daz, even by teachers, but now often get called Big Nose. At school it was an insult but now it is something that differentiates me from other Darrens or Dazs.
Darren "Big Nose" Walker, Leeds

This is not about affectionate nicknames, this is about offensive nicknames. Whether or not Mr Dillon sees this as a racist slur on himself, "Sooty" does have slight overtones of white supremacy, unless of course he represents in any way Harry Corbett's teddy bear puppet. Some years ago I spent an uncomfortable hour or two with a DC from Brixton who freely called the black population "sooties". Brian should know better.
SB, Tonbridge, Kent

SB is right. This isn't about some flattering or otherwise personal nickname. This is about using a racial slur to identify a person as a member of that race, by someone of a group that at one time subjugated the other. In particular, the Royal family almost literally represents the group that subjugated the other. There are a number of "nicknames" that can be used to identify blacks, Jews, east Asians, south Asians and other groups which are universally known to be offensive, and the Royal family, if anyone, should know better. Even if the target of these "nicknames" don't seem to mind or complain (because they really don't mind, or for fear of limiting their careers, or other backlash), doesn't make their use acceptable, as witnessed with the recent "N"-word controversy in the US.
Bassim Matuk

My friend is called Rush as when at school his hair was like a Russian hat. It has stuck ever since.
Scott Taylor, Aberdeen

One reason for nicknames can be distinguishing one member of group from another when their given name matches someone else's. Friends of mine and I know a lot of Matts and after running out of the more obvious adjectives (such as Big Matt, Little Matt etc), one Matt was advised he could either be known as Table or Door. Rather wisely, he choose the former. I do however feel sorry for any new Matt that might become part of our social circle.
AS, Salford, England


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