I have been thinking a great deal about names lately. One of the reasons is that my stepson and his wife are expecting their first child (a girl) in the new year. And despite my wife’s many attempts to pry the chosen name out of them, it appears that the information is in an envelope marked “Top Secret,” stashed in a bank vault! The second reason the subject of names has been on my mind lately is because of a book I just finished reading: We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry (2021). However, it is not the characters’ given names that invaded my thoughts, it is their nicknames and how they got them that started the wheels turning. Names like: “Claw,” “Le Sploce.” “Chin,” and “Contusion.” I know you want more. Sorry, read the book. You won’t be disappointed!
If my title sounds familiar, it’s because it is the start of Juliet’s soliloquy (Act II, I, 1-2) from the famous balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet: “What’s in a name? / That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” There has, of course, been a great deal written about the purpose of names, what they say about us, what they “mean,” both literally and figuratively, and how they are chosen. These are often for the reasons we would most suspect, but sometimes we can be surprised. For example, I was calling out names from a list for a seminar class I was teaching some years ago, when I came to the following name: Destiny Bound! I paused before reading it, but when I did this woman sitting at the back of the room slowly raised her hand with this sheepish look on her face and said: Yeah, that’s me…don’t ask!” The class laughed, as did the woman, but she laughed even harder when I replied: “Were your parents hippies by any chance?” “How did you know?” she replied!
Nicknames are much less straightforward than our given names for many of reasons because we get them in many different ways. Some nicknames stay with us our entire lives, especially if they are derived from our given names, while others are fleeting. We can choose our own nicknames, but this is usually only done when we don’t want to be called “Michael,” but rather “Mike.” Other nicknames can come about because of a physical attribute (height, hair color, or some other distinguishing trait), natural tendencies (athletic, math whiz, musically gifted, etc., etc.), and sometimes because of something we have done, either good or bad! There are also times when nicknames are given by committee, like from your teammates, or some other social/work group you belong to. Some people will have more than one nickname over the course of their lives, especially when you do not stay in one place your entire life.
The book I mentioned above deals with adolescent nicknames, and so to keep this theme, I thought I would share some of the nicknames that I grew up around, including the three that I have been christened with over the years. I have three close friends from my past who I first met when I was 12 (1962). Although I moved away from my hometown (where the three of them still live), we are still in touch 60 years later! Steve L. was the first one I met, interestingly enough while the movers were unloading the truck as we were moving into our new home. He saw the truck, he came over and asked me if I wanted to go to the park nearby to throw a football around. I went upstairs and informed my mother that I was going to the park with my new friend Steve, which may, in fact, have set a new record for making friends when you move! I later learned that Steve’s nickname was “Leeds,” which he inherited from his father who used that as his last name instead of his real one. A few days later, Steve introduced me to Edward L., who went by the moniker “Butchie,” and often shortened to “Butch.” Now, please keep in mind that in 1951, when he was given this name by his parents, Butch did not have the meaning it does today! I later learned that he was given this name because his parents were still deliberating what to name him, and since he had red hair at birth, they didn’t want him being called “Red,” so “Butchie” it was! As far as I know, it is just the three of us that still use that name on occasion. Michael M., the last of the trio went by “Moose,” and like Steve, a derivation of his last name.
There were also some memorable nicknames for some of our mutual friends at school. Steve F. was called “Animal” because one afternoon a bunch of us saw him throw a baseball over home plate while he was lying on his back in center field! Marion S. was “Stretch,” as she was over six feet tall in eight grade! Avrum A. was “Boomy,” because every winter he would stand at center ice with a bunch of pucks taking slapshots to see how far over the boards and out of the park he could get them. This ended when he slapped one so hard that not only did it leave the rink and park, but it sailed through the plate glass window of the grocery store across the street! Finally, there was Brenda S. who always wore sweaters and sweatshirts that were at least one size too small, which, shall we say, enhanced a certain physical attribute. Apparently one day someone saw her with one of these tops on that had writing on it and blurted out: “I wish that sweater came in “Braille.” And that’s how Brenda became “Braille!”
As I mentioned above, I have had three nicknames over the years, none of which are derivatives of my name. This might have something do with the fact that it is difficult to re-purpose the name Irwin. Some tried to call me “Ir,” but that never caught on, and my younger brother started calling me “Win” when he was young because he couldn’t pronounce Irwin, but that only lasted for a year or two. For the purpose of dramatic effect, I will begin with the nickname I now have: “North.” This name was given to me by my girlfriend (now my wife) about 17 years ago when we were “dating” but living in different countries – U.S. and Canada. I was coming to the States for a visit and apparently one of her friends couldn’t remember by name and asked if so-and-so from the north was coming this particular weekend. Next thing I know, I am waiting at the carousel for my bag when I hear: “North?” I turned around as I recognized the voice, and the rest, as they say, is history. Just about everyone I know in this country calls me “North.” And while I understand that there is an offspring of a celebrity couple with that name…I had it first, so there!
My second nickname was given to me by a group of guys that I played old-timers hockey with for about ten years in the late 80s to mid 90’s. We were an eclectic bunch to say the least and our games were loads of fun, but it was the “feedbags” in the parking lot after the games that were epic, especially considering that these would not start until around midnight, as our ice time was 10-11:30 PM every Wednesday. Needless to say, Thursday mornings were a bitch! Everyone had two hockey jerseys, one red, one white, with our crest of honor on the front (a hamburger bleeding ketchup, as our “league” was called the HHL – Hamburger Hockey League!), and two captains would pick sides during warm ups, and then we would know which sweater to wear. The regulars (about 24 of us) paid our dues at the beginning of the year, but there were always a few spares who would come out just in case someone didn’t show. As such, the dressing room could get crowded with people’s gear all over the place, so I always tried to get there early to claim “my” spot. One week I was late getting there, and when I opened the dressing room door there were so many people in there I did not know where I was going to sit. I was not happy, so I yelled out: “It’s too fucking crowded in here.” After the game that week, and unbeknownst to me, someone snatched my two jerseys from my bag, and the following week they were hanging on a hook over where I usually sat, with a name tag over my number: “The Crowd,” my second nickname.
All of which brings me to the nickname I was first christened with when I was twelve. Yes, the picture above is your first clue, but you need to be of a certain age to possibly remember this cartoon figure. It is, in all its celebrated glory: “The Shmoo!” The shmoo was the creation of All Capp for his wonderful newspaper comic strip “Li’l Abner,” which ran from 1934 to 1977. The Shmoo first appeared in 1948 and was to that generation what modern “viral” media is to the 2000s. Capp created the story of the shmoo as a satire about corporate greed. The comic strip itself was the first to be centered in the South.
So, how did I end up with the nickname “The Shmoo?” My buddies and I loved that cartoon strip and the Shmoo in particular. I had this old, white sweatshirt, and one day I decided to take a marker to it and draw some eyes and a mouth. I then crouched down, pulled the sweatshirt over my knees, tied the arms behind my back (the shmoo does not have arms!), and then I hopped around imitating the movement of our beloved cartoon character. My friends loved it and “The Shmoo” became my handle!
Los Angeles 2022