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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 January 2006, 11:08 GMT
Taking the Pele
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Pele is regarded as the greatest footballer
Pele admits he has never liked his nickname and punched the classmate who came up with it. To the rest of the world it's pretty cool, so why does it get him so wound up?

He was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but the world knows him as Pele.

The footballing legend has admitted he doesn't like his nickname, but it could have been worse - his parents used to call him Dico.

The Brazilian star told a German newspaper he hated his nickname so much he punched the classmate who came up with it, earning a two-day suspension from school. The word had no meaning in Portuguese so he presumed it was an insult, but recently he has found out that it means miracle in Hebrew.

"Over the years I've learnt to live with two persons in my heart," he says. "One is Edson, who has fun with his friends and family; the other is the football player Pele. I didn't want the name. Pele sounds like baby-talk in Portuguese."


As he has found, great nicknames take on a life of their own and define how people think about their owners forever - whether they like it or not.

Posh and Becks, Gazza, Ol' Blue Eyes, Two Jags and The Iron Lady, everyone knows who they are. But why do Paul Gascoigne and John Prescott hate theirs, when others don't?

Usually it comes down to where it came from and what it is about. If a person is given a nickname and it focuses on a physical characteristic - like ginger or four eyes - it often has negative connotations. But if someone picks their own nickname, it can be a way of changing their identity.

Victoria and David Beckham
Happy with the Posh and Becks tag?
"Selfhood is a performance and most people play around with what fate has given them in one way or another," says Dr Martin Skinner, psychology lecturer at Warwick University.

"We all try to model and mould our identity and for some that means inventing a nickname for themselves.

"But your name isn't really your own property, it is the property of others, so often you don't get the choice about what your nickname is. That's when they can become a burden."

Adrian Lesson says his nickname Stumpy caused him misery throughout his school life and beyond.

"I was called Stumpy because I am tall, it's supposed to be ironic," he says. "But I have always hated it because I find it patronising. Also, it could refer to another part of my anatomy and no man wants that part of their body branded small.


"I have learned to let it go over the years, but people seem to have an in-built radar about what annoys someone and what doesn't. When they realise it winds me up, they have a field day."

But often nicknames are a badge of honour and a sign of acceptance, even adoration, especially in sport. Cricketers in Australia taking part in Twenty20 competitions that start next week will have their nicknames on the back of their shirts, instead of their surnames.

Paul Gascoigne
Gascoigne wanted to ditch Gazza to break from his past
The sheer inventiveness of others, like jazz musicians Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport and Ferdinand "Jelly Roll Morton" Lamothe, has to be admired.

Dr Skinner says having a single name that is known and used worldwide, elevates Pele into a special category.

"Being referred to by a single name - even if it is a nickname - sets him apart," he says. "It is a unique, God-like name. It lifts him out of the ordinary and makes him a phenomenon rather than a person."

So why should he dislike it so much, when the rest of world love it and him?

"It is a nickname that has been good to him," says Dr Skinner. "But while he was a footballer it fitted and in his subsequent role as a United Nations ambassador it might be more of a bind."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Nicknames are boring, pointless and immature. I see no point in them at all.
Tom 'Ferret Leg' Halsey, Ealing Common

When I was six it rained so hard we had to play inside rather than outside at school break time. Instead of the usual "colouring in", I decided we should have a paper plane making competition. Everybody had a part to play in the competition ranging from making to testing the planes, except me, when somebody said I should be the governor as I came up with the idea. Understandably, we couldn't spell it and even to this day my closest friends still refer to me as "guvner"!
Gavin Barker, Bradford, UK.

I was called Big Daddy at school, because of my physique. I rather liked it, and I am still called it today!
John Doe, Chorley

When I was 12, one of my teachers pointed out that I looked a bit like Eddie Edwards (who was "famous" at the time). Boy I was delighted about that one!
Paul Johnson, Seoul, South Korea

In Irish, 'peile' means football and is pronounced as 'pela'. Becuase of this I had always thought that 'Pele' meant football in some other language and that was why he was given this name, and am very surprised to find that it has no meaning! Maybe if Pele looks to the Irish language he migh not feel so bad.
Jay, London

Towards the end of my secondary schooling people stopped using my nicknames (Stocky, Snacky and other oddities) and started to address me as Dave. I was in two minds about this, as I felt some of the nicknames beneath my fledgling adulthood. A very close friend rather dismissively said "shall we call you Dave then?". I wasn't very sure and he never used it, but in due course I became Dave. I loathe the name Dave. To my wife, colleagues, family and some friends I am David. To a handful of very old and very dear friends I am Stocky, which I rather like. To a large number of other friends I am "Dave" and I introduce myself as such on the telephone to them (but always as David to new acquaintances). I hate that I lost control of my name and that people who are new to me take the liberty of contracting it, regardless of the circumstances. When we named my son I approached it with an eye to contractions etc. He is Alexander. It is a fine, strong name and I hope he protects it better than his father protected his own.
David, London, UK

I had the nickname 'Goat' throughout my school life, and was never happy with it (Imagine having to introduce yourself to girls). Once I left for University I took control of them; my proudest moments were 'Toffe' and 'Cassius'.
Toffe/Cassius, Norwich

According to Hazlitt, a nickname is the hardest stone the devil can throw at a man. "Of all eloquence a nickname is the most concise; of all arguments the most unanswerable." Ambrose Bierce, he of The Devil's Dictionary and legendary drinking bout with Jack London fame, said: "For every man there is something in the vocabulary that would stick to him like a second skin. His enemies have only to find it."
Falstaff, Hastingleigh, Kent

Whilst serving as an auxilliary with the R.A.F. as a smoker my flight sergeant christened me "'Alf A Lung" & this became shortened by my colleagues to Lung a name by which I am still known to my ex-confederates
kevin hall, High Wycombe U.K.

My daughter's nickname is Starship. Her name is actually Stephanie but, when she was little, I started calling her Stefferson for some reason. Then, remembering the band Jefferson Airplane, I changed this to Stefferson Starship and the Starship bit stuck! Her partner is a graphic designer and he's created a 'trademark' for her, printing it onto a Tshirt and commissioning a stained glass insert for their front door. Nothing so cool for me tho'. My father always called me 'Bridget' even though my name is Ruth. I never did understand why!
Ruth, Oxfordshire, UK

I have been universally referred to as 'Mooey' since my school days and I hate it. Now at the age of 35 I've finally thrown in the towel.
Paul Smith, Manchester ,UK

I've had my nickname so long many people who know me by it may not even know my real name! The same goes for my mates Trifle, Maggie, Pruney, Banner and Squirrel!
Livzy, Bangor Aye

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