What’s in a (nick)name?

How would you like to go through life being called Spud? Or Toad? I suppose it could be worse. It could be Mitt. Or even Newt. Nah, that’s just too crazy.

How would you like to go through life being called Spud? Or Toad? I suppose it could be worse. It could be Mitt. Or even Newt. Nah, that’s just too crazy.

But that’s the thing with nicknames. Sometimes they’re silly and sometimes they stick. And lots of people prefer their nicknames to their regular real names. I mean, what sounds cooler — James Hickok or Wild Bill Hickok? Martha Canary or Calamity Jane? Gordon Sumner or Sting? Earvin or Magic Johnson?

Who hasn’t called someone a nickname, knows somebody with one or, better yet, has been afflicted with a nickname somewhere, sometime along life’s unpredictable journey.

I know I have.

For some reason, my Mom and Dad (and only my Mom and Dad) called me Scrubby. Or just plain Scrub. I’m not sure where it came from, though I do believe that when I was little I was always up to jughandle ears in one messy adventure after another. Come to think of it, not much has changed in that regard, even all these years later.

I’d love to hear them call me Scrubby, just one more time.

In elementary school, I used to spend a couple of weeks every summer holidays staying out at my Uncle Wilf and Auntie Doris’s farm east of town. The Hillsdown-Valley Centre area wasn’t only the best place I’d ever seen for more messy adventures with my cousins and their cows, chickens, pigs and dogs, it was the centre of the universe when it came to nicknames.

My oldest cousin Jimmy always called me Steamer, while his brother Larry gave me the handle Hoehandle. As in: “Well here comes Hoehandle Hay from over the straw!”

My cousins were always known by their nicknames. Even at school and in town Larry was always Rusty. David was called Smokey. Terry was Guya (though I’m not sure why). And those names still stick with them to this day. In fact, it was years of knowing my cousins before my Better Half found out what their real names were.

Back when I was a teenager and my two nephews and niece came along, as soon as they could talk and for years after they called me Gunk. I like to think it was more because it was a little person’s version of Uncle rather than some comment on my character.

Years later when I parachuted into the middle of a job at a TV station, for some reason, within a week everyone there was calling me Huck. I was there for four years and for all that time, I was Huck only at work, and I was my regular old Harley everywhere else.

Even now my best friends seem to call me anything but my real name, with the most common monikers not printable in a family newspaper. However, I mostly get Harold or Harv – which proves I’ll answer to just about anything.

Of course, over the years the shoe has been firmly on the other foot. Friends of mine have been known to carry around such worthy epithets as Fudd, Phoof, Moses and Ripper — which sounds like a really bad law office — or Bro, Reverend Ike, Spinner, Buck. Deep and Dusty to nickname just a sampling of the joys of alternative titles.

Yes, it a wonderfully wacky world we live in. Especially when the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential dog and pony show in the United States of Obama have names that make Bubba and Muggsy sound positively classy.

Mitt and Newt? Seriously? These are excellent names. For pet hamsters. But it’s a bit scary when Mitt and Newt happen to be two very powerful men, one of whom could potentially be running the most powerful nation in the world.

I couldn’t resist checking into this name game. Turns out Newt Gingrich’s nickname came from the fact that his first name is Newton. His mother Kathleen was always called Kit, so it’s no surprise that Newton would be nicked with a nickname. And I can understand his aversion to Newtown as a handle that all would respect, but all I can say is, his middle name must be a real stinker.

As for the powerful, rich Mitt Romney, Mitt is in fact his middle name and it is a nickname of Milton, his father’s cousin and former quarterback for the Chicago Bears. And we all know how those sports guys love their nicknames! Besides, Mitt’s first name is actually Willard, so who can blame him for going with the much more high-falutin Mitt?

I guess when it comes to nicknames, anything goes. After all, as William ‘The Bard’ Shakespeare once said, “What’s in a name?” I’m sure Mitt and Newt would be no more credible with regular names like John or Fred. Which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, come to think of it.

Still my two rotten kids haven’t forgiven me for nicknaming them Spud and Toad their whole lives. It was painfully cute when they were really little but around about the time they became teenagers, they made me promise I would never ever call them my special nicknames within several blocks of any of their friends — or in any public setting whatsoever.

I try, I really do, but it’s just too much fun to let a “Toad” or a “Spud” slip out every once in a while at just the right public moment.

But, hey, it can always be worse. I mean, I could have gone through life as Gunk Hay. And judging from the current trend, with a name like that I would have been a shoe-in for politics. And if that’s not crazy, I don’t know what is.

Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks.

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