Nicknames gone but not forgotten
When my children grew up in Rhode Island during the 1970s and ‘80s, neither they nor their friends had nicknames. To me, shortening my younger daughter’s name from Meridith to Mer (pronounced MAA-yah in New Englandese) does not constitute a nickname.
Recently I looked at my Solvay (NY) High School yearbooks and was reminded that during the early 1950s nicknames were alive and well, though some bordered on bad taste, at least, by today’s standards.
Assuming nicknames have been forced into the witless protection program, I looked for reasons. Most obvious, I guess, is political correctness, which frowns upon several nicknames from the past. In the early 1900s, for example, German-American athletes were often nicknamed “Heinie.” Players who were at least part Indian (Native American) usually were called “Chief.”
Baseball player Nick Cullop had chubby cheeks and ruddy complexion, which earned him the nickname “Tomato Face.” Infielder Frank Crespi was called “Creepy” because he looked like a disfigured movie monster known as “The Creeper.” Catcher Ernie Lombardi was called “Schnozz” because of his large nose. Pitcher Freddie Fitzsimmons was better known as “Fat Freddie.” There were several players nicknamed “Jumbo” and a few called “Blimp.”
ONE POPULAR Solvay High student, Andrew Patapow, was called “Goo Goo.” Where the nickname originated, I never knew. Perhaps it had something to do with a candy called Goo Goo Clusters, or perhaps “Goo Goo” was a family joke that went back to Andy’s infancy.
Another popular student was “Dumbo” Dabrowski. Imagine the trouble you could get into today if you hung that nickname on a child. Dabrowski’s real name was Anthony, but everyone called him “Dumbo.” Whether it was for his ears, his demeanor, the Disney movie, or just a stupid Polish joke, I don’t know, but since alliteration is the driving force behind many nicknames, I’m sure he wouldn’t have been given this one had his last name started with a different letter.
Dabrowski seemed to enjoy his nickname. So did a classmate who was nicknamed "Wop." Most kids I knew responded the same way . . . because having a nickname gave you a certain status, but only if the nickname was pinned on you by someone else. That meant you had been noticed. To nickname yourself was to indicate you were desperate for attention. Such a nickname could backfire. (Advice: never call yourself "Ace.")
IT FOLLOWS, then, that the more popular the student, the more likely his or her nickname was the only identification necessary. When someone in Solvay said “Bimby,” everyone knew it was a reference to my cousin, Bimby Smolinski. His real name was William and some adults called him Billy (never Bill; that name belonged to his father). I believe “Bimby” came from the way he said “Billy” when he was a toddler. It was a nickname he never escaped.
Likewise, in 1953, the nicknames “Dixie,” “Noc” and “Gun” referred only to Richard O’Hara, John De Santis and Donald Bartle. “Dixie” might have been one of those family nicknames; I don’t know for sure. “Noc” and “Gun” were unique to the two boys who carried them. I have no idea how, when or why the nicknames started.
NICKNAMES suggested by real names usually are forgettable — if your last name is Cook, you’ll probably be called “Cookie,” if it is Woods, you’ll be called “Woody,” etc. — but two Solvay students were all the more memorable for it. Joe Sardaneri was called “Sods,” or “Joe Sods,” and Joseph Fragnito carried a nickname you’d expect to find in a movie about the mob – “Joe Frogs.”
Solvay High in the early 1950s had “Hawkeye” (Bruce Walker), along with “Hot Dog” (Remo Valazza), “Camouflage” (John Briggman) and “Pumpkin” (Janet Rydelek).
We also had “Birdseye” (Ronald Zulberti), “Horse” (Ed Showerman), “Hawk” (Robert Fagliarone), “Shadow” (Joan Donnelly), “Speedy” (Irma Emanuelli), “Slip” (Lena Failoni) and “Yiggers” (Vincent Volturno). Frank Fernandez was called "Twerp," which is what he wrote on his nametag at the 60th reunion of the Class of 1955.
Going to Solvay High was like being in a Bowery Boys movie.
MY SISTER, Mary Beth, had three imaginary friends when she was a child. One of them, Mickerbeak, became my sister’s nickname for several years.
I had several nicknames. The most enduring was given me by “Red” Mathews (real name Dan) during a driveway basketball game. “Red" was well into high school while I was still in elementary school, so I considered him one of the Russet Lane gang's elders. I was flattered he had thought of me. Thus I became “Magi.” “Red” pronounced it with a hard G, which is how this nickname remained, though when you’re referring to the magi, as in The Wise Men, a soft G is preferred.
THE TREND away from nicknames may be traced to the 1960s when parents began giving their children unusual names. Until the 1960s, we were overrun with John, James, William, Charles, Mary, Margaret, et cetera et cetera et cetera. Nicknames were needed to break up the monotony.
Now it seems no two people have the same first name, or if they do, it is spelled differently every time — Karen, Karin, Karyn, Caren, Carin and Caryn. (One Solvay student from the '50s provided a preview — Nancee Higbee.)
One of the trendy first names for boys about 20 years ago was Hunter. That's why I was delighted to learn a baseball player so named now bears a nickname that would stand out in any era. Hunter Pence, outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, is called Captain Underpants.
It's not because of any interest he has in a series of children's books by that name. Turns out that years ago when players were introduced before the game, the public address announcer boomed out, "Hunter Pence!"
A teammate chuckled and asked, "Did he just say 'under pants'?" And a nickname was born.