One of the underappreciated and truly great Southern idiosyncrasies is our gift for colorful nicknames. Just about everybody has one, and some are blessed with several. If you’re Southern and you don’t have a nickname, you might be deficient in some way. You had better get busy doing some Southern stuff to prove yourself worthy.
Southern nicknames are love-names, they make us feel less alone in the world. We’re not alone in this regard; many other cultures tag their friends and family with nicknames. The more cohesive the culture, the more prevalent the nicknames. There are three ways to get tagged with a nickname; each way has its own rules. Some of y’all are lucky enough to have several nicknames in each category: Family, Earned and Association.
The most persistent nicknames are the names given to us by family. In my case, I could not pronounce “Tim” when I was little. Instead, I said, “Tee-Tee.”
My grandparents called me “Tee-Tee” all their lives. Eventually, this was shortened to “Tee” by my parents and sister. It was also a good nickname for a kid who played golf. My dad would often call me “Tiger Tee” if I did well in school or athletics – it makes me smile to this day when I think of it.
Many of the family-given nicknames are terms of endearment to be shared by close family only: Sweetness, Ladybug, Tater Tot, Kitty, Gidget, Sissy, La-La, Doodle, Sugar Dumpling, Lollipop, Toots, Cow Tail, Bardit (short for Katy Bar the Door), Tickle, Dink, Bitsy, Pip, Jock-o, Kiki, Cuffy, Topsy, Bink, Boo, Wog, Rocky, Missy, Sissy, Karo, Ace, Tump.
You might find that if anyone outside of your close family uses one of these to address you that it strikes a nerve.
Family-given nicknames frequently replace given names as lifelong, legal names.
Every Southerner knows a Bubba, Sissy or Bebe who earned their nickname from a younger sibling who couldn’t pronounce brother, sister or baby. For the same reason Baily, Daisy, Mimi, Cece, and Gigi are often derived from failed attempts of siblings to pronounce a given name.
Some nickname foundations are clear: Reb, Chub, Bull, Chip, Skip and Trip. Others are not: the legionary coach Shug Jordan got his nickname because he liked to chew sugar cane. Coach Bum (Oail Andrew ) Phillips got his from his sister’s pronunciation of “brother.” Lady Bird Johnson’s given name was “Claudia,” but her nanny re-christened her with a Shakespearean term of endearment. And of course Bear Bryant wrestled a bear to earn his nickname.
In an exception to the rule that one cannot choose his or her own nickname, Louisiana Governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal chose his from the Brady Bunch sitcom while a boy in India. Thankfully so, because Americans would struggle with “Piyush” Continentally, the nickname of one of my Indian colleagues, the fantastically named “Meyyappan Annamalai”, was also “Bob”.
There always seems to be a wag responsible for formulating nicknames. In grade school someone tagged me with “Heaty.” In high school it changed to “Dash” because I attempted to run the 440M in a track meet even though I didn’t run track – I was a shot-putter. Note: I was so far behind in my heat that I finished second in the following heat.
“Dash” became even more ironic in my sophomore year when I came down with a nasty case of Mono, which left me 50 pounds lighter without a corresponding increase in speed.
In my junior year, I wrecked my car in a homecoming parade, which in addition to more unwanted notoriety, earned me the new nickname ”Crash.”
As a side note, I know an “Ashley” who was promptly re-christened “Crashly” after a parking lot fender-bender. I’m hoping against hope that my youngest son “Mike,” who I’m nervously teaching to drive, doesn’t earn the nickname “Mash.”
Nicknames later in life tend to come from association with a group. In college I dated an Alabama grad nick-named “Gordo.”
Gordo is a small town close to campus with no prominent geographic features. Her BFF, however, was well-endowed and promptly christened “Tokyo,” which has Mount Fuji – a very prominent geological feature indeed.
“Scott Sharp” became “Not Sharp” – even after earning duel engineering and medical degrees. Every plus-sized pledge became “Bream” in honor of the Flounder character in Animal House.
There was also: Hoof (big feet), Goose, Robot (huge person who moved mechanically,) Catfish, Cotton, Buck, Bunny, Gator, Chunk (a chubby fellow named Charles,) Cricket, Munchie, Kip, Muffy, (ironically) Kit, Topsy, Tibby, Olive (won’t say why here) and Chick (because he walked like a rooster).
Oddly enough, in the “real world” both “Crash” And “Dash” resurfaced as nicknames for unrelated reasons. My other career nicknames where derived from my Wall Street trading demeanor: Ice Man, Hit Man, Dr. Evil and the polar opposite tag of “Timmy.”
It seems in New York everyone gets a “y” added to their name even if their other nicknames are villainous. I enjoy my nicknames, but the one that warms my heart is the one my family gave me long ago: “Tee.”
If my mom, dad or sister ever called me “Tim,” it would be tantamount to them addressing me as “hey you.” Although I kind of like “Dr. Evil” now that I think about it.
If you don’t have a nickname, you may have wandered from the Southern way. Do some Southern stuff so that you may get back in good graces.
The South’s grand social season is upon us (aka Football season.) There are lots of opportunites to pick up a nickname. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when your ear is itchy from this exchange.
Complements of Patricia Neely-Dorsey in her collection: My Magnolia Memories and Musings -In Poems.
“What’s his name?”
“Pee Wee ”
“Yeah…But what’s his “real name?”
“We just always call him That.”
Tim Heaton is a HottyToddy.com contributor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “Bless Your Heart, You Freakin’ Idiot: Southern Sayings Translated” is available on Amazon as well as “Momma n’ Em Said: The Treasury of Southern Sayings.”