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16 June 2014

Nicknames, a Very English Thing

I know authors who’ve caught flack for using nicknames for their heroes (sometimes quite outlandish sounding ones), but I’m here to tell you that nothing could be more historically accurate—or more English!—than a nickname; the crazier the better!

Let us take for example the 5th Duke of Devonshire and his family. The Duchess and his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster called him “Canis” because he was happiest at home with his dogs.  Amongst themselves the duchess was Mrs. Rat and Lady Elizabeth Foster was Racky. Their children were Hart (Marquess of Hartington), Little G or just G (Georgiana) and Hary-o (Harriet).

At this point, it was rare for the eldest son to be sent to school (a big author I know says she's never found any Georgian/Regency first born sons with a school record), but school days were a great source of nicknames for younger sons and for first born sons from the Victorian period on. Most were either based upon your name, your title, or upon some physical quirk or deed/stunt.  Just look at the characters in P.G. Wodehouse’s works:  Plug, Fruity, Beefy, Puffy, Mustard, Nobby, Bicky, Chuffy, Gussie, Boko, Tuppy, Kipper, Bingo, Stinker, Buffy, Stiffy, Catsmeant, Corky, Sippy, Rocky, Sandy, Gazeka, Looney, Spennie, Flick, Hash, Chimp, Soapy, Smooth, and my favorite, Stilton.

Sometimes the names make sense, e.g. Stilton’s surname is Cheesewright, Mustard’s is Pott and Kipper’s is Herring.  Often it’s simple a play on their name, Sandy/Alexandra, Gussie/Augustus, Aggie/Niagra. Occasionally, they’re explained by the character’s physical description, e.g. Beefy is a big, brawny man, and sometimes  we can guess, as with Stinker (aka Lord Tilbury). Many of them however are inexplicable (Bingo, Hash, and Boko?), but because they’re so grounded in the world, you never question that there IS a reason/story behind the name.  Wodehouse himself was called Plum by the way.

A few strange real life ones: Jerry Lewis was “Id” (short for Idiot). Sally Struthers’s sister called her Packy (short for Pachyderm because she was chubby).  Gordon Summers is better known as Sting because of a black and yellow sweater he wore. Buster Keaton was so dubbed by Harry Houdini himself because of his ability to fall down a flight of stairs and come out unscathed.

So if we just play with Devonshire … He could have been D, Devon, Dray if late Victorian (a play on Shire, which is a horse breed), he could also be Hart (as indeed the 6th Duke was), and perhaps Cup or Tankard or Bowl as a play on the “dish” part of Cavendish.

So yeah, those outlandish nicknames writers give their heroes? Totally period and very, very English.

 

2 Comments:

Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Stilton is absolute genius! I love these nicknames and I find it hard to believe people cannot see the lure of nicknames in a period when titles and addressing persons correctly was so strictly held. Especially young men who went away to school together or were thrown together so much as teenagers and young men.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I know! And nicknames give you so many opportunities to needle a character. *grin*

10:21 AM  

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