One of the unwritten great things about the South is our obsession with colorful nicknames. Everybody’s got one, and some people are blessed with several. If you’re Southern and you don’t have a nickname, then there might be something wrong with you. Maybe it goes back to the end of the Civil War when Yankee troops were stalking around looking for various “war criminals,” and everybody started giving out fake, life-saving aliases. You know, something like this:
Yankee soldier (in a high-pitched, nasal, pinched-off voice): “Hey, you there! I’m looking for Robert. Have you seen Robert? He may also be known as Bobby or Rob.”
Robert (in a deep, rich, resonant Southern accent): “No, sir, my name is Stinky Bean. I don’t know anybody named Robert.”
You get the point.
My wife’s grandfather was named George, but he was known his entire life as Monk. Her grandmother was named Louise, but called Plutie. Her father was called Spud, and her mother was called Kohny. In our combined families, we also have a Jug, a Peavey, a Shorty, a Wookie (decades before Star Wars), a Bug, a Bird, a Duggah, a Renny, a Sonny, a Dinky, a Bigdaddy, and a Gee, to name a few.
Some Southern nicknames are considered to be authentic lifelong names, like my wife’s parents and grandparents, for example. People actually sign their names that way, and they even use that nickname if running for public office. Almost every Southerner knows at least one Bubba who probably got his nickname from a younger sibling who couldn’t pronounce Brother. For that same reason, I know a Becky (real name Mary) who was so-nicknamed because her older brother couldn’t pronounce Baby.
Other nicknames are secretive and almost tribal, and only a select few know about their origins. Those are usually the funny ones, and are based on some infamous achievement or event in that person’s life. They may become public nicknames at some point, but they usually remain private. A friend of mine was apparently too fond of brownies as a little boy, and he was known to everyone as Brownie, even though his real name was John. I knew him for years as Brownie before I ever learned his actual name. His nickname was a public one. However, for reasons that shall remain secret, I’ve also known a Cat, a Rump, a Brick, a Bags, a Bloat, a Winky, a Skeets, a Cheese, a Peezee, and a Fritz.
Appearance-based nicknames can either be descriptively accurate or jokingly backwards. A neighborhood friend of mine used to be painfully skinny as a little boy, and he got his nickname from a game of Password. The actual Password was “Bones” and his sister simply pointed at this poor kid for her clue. Her partner immediately got it right, and he suddenly had a new nickname for life. Another friend was a little bit chubby in college, but we always called him Narrow. I’ve known two people nicknamed Shoney – one because he was a “big boy,” and the other because he was the exact opposite of a big boy.
Initials also make great nicknames for Southern men, especially if the first one is the letter J, such as JB, JR, JD, JW, JT, etc. I don’t know as many Southern women with initials for a nickname, but then again, I don’t get around very much. Animals can also provide a great source for Southern nicknames, as I have known a lot of Bucks, Bunnys, Porkys, and even one Honeybear.
My nickname? I have several. When I was four, I apparently told a nosy lady that my name was Tom Butterbean, so the Butterbean part stuck. My mother still calls me that. My father always called me Tico, which was his variation of the first letter of Tom. My high school friends called me Tex for reasons that have never been clear to me, and my wife calls me Red because of my hair. My students call me Doc, even though I properly introduce myself as Dr. Daniel at the beginning of each semester. I’m not the only Doctor on our campus, but I think I’m the only Doc.