Last week marked the ten-year anniversary of my moving to the South. Reports of it being a “whole ‘nuther place” can be exaggerations, I’ve found, but there are a few cultural quirks here that I hadn’t seen in other parts of the country. One such quirk is the preponderance of colorful nicknames. I got the first dose of this one morning over coffee shortly after my move to Tennessee. Nashville’s daily paper,The Tennessean, was lying open to the obituaries, and among the recently deceased were three whose names jumped out at me. There, in a bold-but-somber typeface, I learned that Punkin’, Skillet, and Frogboy were no longer with us.
Sure, they printed their real, legal, Christian names, but tucked right in the middle, in quotation marks, were the handles most folks knew them by. I imagine that there were friends who were both saddened and surprised reading the news of their passing. (“Did you know that Punkin’s real name was Doris!?” or, “Waldo!? No wonder he called himself Skillet!”)
I wrote the three nicknames on a pad and decided to keep a running list of favorites from upcoming obits. I stopped after about a year, but not before compiling an impressive array of southern monikers. After a while, certain categories suggested themselves. The animal kingdom was well represented, for example. I noted the demise of Minnow,Tadpole, & Catfish; Possum, Beaver, & Fat Rabbit; Turkey Sam, Boy Dog, & Big Ox.
In a category we might call “Snow White’s Not-as-Famous Dwarf Friends” I found: Snuffy, Pokey, Juicy, Dumpy, Moody, Grubby, Mousie, and Tooty. These names were mostly gender-neutral, but a couple of categories were definitely male-dominated.
One was the curt, single-syllable, macho-sounding name. Things like: Dank, Wick, Tiff, or Kick. Gunk, Chunk, Bunk, or Sput. Tump, Fuzz, Ham, or Snaz. And, sounding like a line of R2D2 dialog, I found Pop, Dupe, Wop, & Doot.
Another group of guy names was obviously inspired by physical traits. There, besides Chin and Duckfeet, you’ll find Meaty, Jumbo, Beefy, Pudgie, and Husky. A discussion of Tennessee’s obesity rates, anyone? It turns out, one’s head can earn an epithet, too, as evidenced by the death notices of Bullhead, Boxhead, and Bonehead.
Some of the nicknames defy categorization: Swamp & Oilwell, Tiny Baby & Daddy Boy, Pie Man & Mr. Sunshine…
Every name on the list gave me a chuckle as I logged it on my yellow legal pad. Of course, it’s not lost on me that each of those names represents the passing of a real person with a family and a personal history, and with each chuckle I feel a tiny twinge of guilt. But I think Frogboy would understand.