In an era of extreme sensitivity,
interesting nicknames are a rarity

As a retiree who lives on another planet (Bluffton, South Carolina), I admit I'm out of touch with the real world. What I do recall is that when my children went through school 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. Nor does changing Jeffrey to Jeff.

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, especially by today’s ultrasensitive standards.

Assuming nicknames have been forced into the witless protection program, I looked for reasons. Most obvious, I guess, is the extreme sensitivity that grew out of the political correctness movement, which frowns upon several nicknames from the past. You’ll find examples in baseball reference books. In the early 1900s, for example, German-American players were often nicknamed “Heinie.” It didn’t matter what their real first names were. Players who were at least part Indian (Native American) usually were called “Chief.” I believe most of these nicknames were handed out thoughtlessly, not maliciously, and occasionally were tokens of respect, a conclusion some may find difficult to swallow.

One of my high school classmates was nicknamed “Wop.” Why she, of the many students from Italian-American homes, was singled out with a common, usually disparaging piece of slang, I don’t know. It was included in the 1955 Solvay High School yearbook, something that today might get an editor suspended from school.

Granted, some of us cringed when we saw the nickname in print, but Angela, being unusually good-natured, wore the name proudly and with a great deal of the humor that made her one of the school’s best-liked students.

I'm not sure how certain baseball players handled their nicknames. For example, there was outfielder Nick Cullop, whose chubby cheeks and ruddy complexion 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. Outfielder Bob Fothergill was called “Fat” or “Fatty”; likewise, pitcher Freddie Fitzsimmons was better known as “Fat Freddie.” There were several players nicknamed “Jumbo” and a few called “Blimp.”

Today, with people perhaps overly concerned about a child’s self-esteem, nicknames such as “Fatty,” “Creepy” and “Tomato Face” might be subjects of lawsuits.

AMONG the Solvay High students was Andrew Patapow, a member of our varsity basketball team during the 1952-53 season. I knew Andy because I was on the junior varsity team that year. However, his first name momentarily eluded me and the yearbook identified him in the team photo only by last name and first initial. I found his senior photo, which identified him as Andrew, with the obvious nickname, "Andy." But a memory floodgate opened when I came upon an article in the student newspaper that referred to him as “Goo Goo.” Suddenly, the braincells that went into hibernation when I retired, were awake and functioning.

Where the nickname originated, I never knew. Perhaps it had something to do with a candy called Goo Goo Clusters (which had nothing to do with The Goo Goo Dolls, who took their name from a “toy” they saw advertised in a magazine). Or perhaps “Goo Goo” was a family joke that went back to Andy’s infancy.

Anyway, standing behind “Goo Goo” Patapow in that team photo was “Dumbo.” As in “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. 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. I don’t think I even knew “Dixie” O’Hara’s real name until I went through my 1953 yearbook for the first time. “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.

According to the 1953 yearbook, my cousin Bob Smolinski’s nickname was “Thuggie,” and I guess it was, though my recollection is he went through a series of short-lived nicknames, including “Tiger,” “Bengal Bob” and “Nasty.” That last one is an indication that “Thuggie” was appropriate . . . because Bob was not someone I wanted to see headed my way when I walked a hallway. His idea of a greeting was to thwomp me on my left shoulder as we passed each other. I bounced off the wall and he kept walking, probably smiling. Two things I remember about high school Bob is that he had an evil smile and a wicked left jab. He mellowed considerably during college, though on the basketball court for LeMoyne he usually played like someone you’d call “Thuggie.”

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.”

War movies and television series are usually big on nicknames. “M*A*S*H” had some of the best because they reminded me of high school – “Hawkeye,” “Trapper John,” “Radar” and “Hot Lips.”

Solvay High in the early 1950s also had “Hawkeye” (Bruce Walker), along with “Hot Dog” (Remo Valazza), “Camouflage” (John Briggman) and “Pumpkin” (Janet Rydelek). Several years ahead of me at school was John Savo, who played a lot of basketball with my cousin Bimby on the driveway basketball court next door to our house. Savo wore thick glasses and was called “Bombsight.”

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). Since I lived the experience way before "M*A*S*H," I was struck by another Hollywood comparison at the time — nickname-wise: Going to Solvay High was like being in a Bowery Boys movie.

IT MAY have been the Archie comic books that inspired John Ciciarelli’s nickname – “Jughead,” which was changed to “Jugger” in the 1955 yearbook. “Jughead” Ciciarelli was more like Archie than the doofus for which he was named; like Archie, Ciciarelli always had a Veronica and a Betty fighting over him.

The center of our 1954-55 team was the late Bill Morse, who was nicknamed “Heels” because of a real or imagined injury. He kept whining about how much his heels were hurting that we retaliated with the nickname and were surprised when it stuck. I think more than any nickname that appears in my three Solvay yearbooks, “Heels” prompts the most questions.

One of my favorite nicknames was “BVDs,” hung on Bruce Van Derwater. A Solvay student who didn’t need a nickname – his real name being memorable enough – was Hurley Quackenbush, but he had a nickname nonetheless, and it was one of the few that passed my Michael Buffer test. That is, imagine ring announcer Buffer handling the introductions. For this one, Buffer would belt out, “Curley Hurley Quackenbuuuuuuuuush!!”

MY COUSIN Jim Smolinski got stuck with “Baby Jim” when he was the youngest of three sons. A fourth brother arrived when Jim was about 10 years old, but his nickname didn't go away. His younger brother is named Philip Duncan Smolinski. A half-hearted effort was made to nickname him “Flip.” Not only did that nickname come out of his real name — if you said "Philip" fast enough — but it also was borrowed from Jim’s favorite baseball player, Al “Flip” Rosen. But it never caught on in Phil’s case.

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.

Like my cousin Bob, I had several nicknames. My elementary school teachers considered “Jack” a nickname, since, to them, I was John Major. “Why don’t they call you Johnny?” one of my teachers asked. I had no reply, but was grateful no one took her up on it. Being called “Jackie” by parents, aunts and uncles was bad enough.

A few years later, while playing basketball in a neighbor’s driveway, “Red” Mathews (real name Dan) hung a nickname on me. As far as I was concerned, “Red," well into high school while I was still in elementary school, was 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 has remained, though when you’re referring to the magi, as in The Wise Men, a soft G is preferred.

Trouble is, a nickname pronounced “MAG-eye” inevitably led to “Maggot,” which persisted for several months. In high school I picked up the nickname “Dirty Jack,” though I can’t remember who started it or why, though the person responsible probably was my cousin Tom Smolinski. In college my roommates and my landlord called me “Neatness” Major because the area around my bed was always a mess.

AS THE YEARS went by, all but one of my nicknames faded away. Only “Magi” remained. “Red” Mathews died before I could thank him. “Magi” has served me well, though I’ve exempted it from password duty. Everybody should know by now that nicknames and important family dates should never be used to protect your identity. Besides, turns out Magi is too short to be a password.

Nicknames may have faded because people have unusual names pinned on them by their parents. 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.

I recently re-watched some of "The Sopranos" and was disappointed there weren't as many colorful nicknames as my faulty memory had promised. Outside of Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri and the unforgettable Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero, there weren't any names worth mentioning.

It was HBO's "The Wire" which had the best roster of colorful names, including William "Bunk" Moreland, Reginald "Bubbles" Cousins, Russell "Stringer" Bell, Malik "Poot" Carr, Roland "Wee-Bey" Brice, Melvin "Cheese" Wagstaff and Thomas "Horseface" Pakusa.

The show's most memorable character, though fictitious, supports my theory that real names may be catchier these days than nicknames. That character was Omar, whose last name, Little, was seldom mentioned. But when anyone said, "Omar," the name was recognized by everyone.

HOWEVER, I was amused to learn during the 2014 World Series that baseball still occasionally produces a nickname that would stand out in any era. Hunter Pence, then an outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, but since retired, was called Captain Underpants.

And 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 being introduced before the game, the public address announcer boomed out, "Hunter Pence!" and one of his teammates chuckled and asked, "Did he just say 'under pants'?" And a nickname was born.