Saturday, December 30, 2017

Nicknames, Continued

There was an illuminating comment on that nickname post the other day. It raised an issue that I had not addressed: close knit groups choose nicknames for each other as a bonding mechanism. Only the group members know all of the nicknames and their origin stories.

Also on the plus side, it’s fun.

Also illustrated by the comment is the fact that it can get confusing.

I worked at a place one time that made 16 millimeter film cameras and the device that allows a hand-held camera to be gyro-stabilized. It was all in one building, all of management, all of labor, and all of the materials. The offices, the factory floor, the drafting and design studios, the machine shop, the stores, and the loading dock. They were pressed for cash at the time, because video was starting to cut into the film-camera market for news gathering, which had been their customer base for, well forever. One of the ways that they saved some cash was getting machinists from overseas. There were a lot of Russians, a French-Canadian, and a few Englishmen.

We knew one of the Englishmen as Tommy, Tommy Atkins. By the time he’d been there for a year or so, we discovered that he preferred to go by the name Sonny. So, Sonny it was, we switched over. Our initial assumption was that his name was Thomas Atkins, but that his father had the same name and he had always been called Sonny, a phenomenon that all Americans are familiar with.
One day a petite Englishwoman of a certain age came to the side door looking for her husband. I was later told that she asked to see a man named ‘Erbert Atkins. (“Herbert”) No, she was told, there’s no Herbert Atkins here. She insisted that there was, and finally our guy said that we did, actually, have a Sonny Atkins. “That’s ‘im!” she said.

That made three names for old Mr. Atkins. It turned out that his real name was Herbert, and that Herbert was also his father’s name. So all of his life he had been Sonny to his family and friends. “Tommy Atkins” is a story that Americans in general don’t know. I was just discovering it myself in this instance. Back in the “Great War,” called by us World War I, the British Army in France was called the “Territorial Army.” On recruiting posters this became the TA, the British equivalent of a GI. TA was reduced for the sake of sentimentality to Tommy Atkins, the universal British soldier. To this day, British soldiers are called Tommies.  

He was automatically called Tommy by almost everybody outside of his immediate circle of family and friends over in Britain. The cousins have a lot of family names that come with automatic nicknames. “Dusty” Rhodes; “Chalky” White; “Ringer” Bell. The English are not usually associated with riotous fun, but they do indulge themselves on occasion. This is more likely a sign that they are a sentimental, tradition-based people. None of that requires a value judgment of any kind. It might even flatter them.

I’ve had a few nicknames myself, but I’ve talked about them hereon over the years and there’s no need to rehash it all now. Maybe I’ll check back to see if I’ve omitted a good opportunity to be entertaining. (Yeah, go ahead and laugh. I’m laughing about that crack myself.) 

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