Friday, May 13, 2011

"The Lip" By Any Other Name

[I]n respect to the choice and imposition of christian names, [my father] thought a great deal more depended than what superficial minds were capable of conceiving. His opinion, in this matter, was, That there was a strange kind of magick bias, which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impressed upon our characters and conduct.
          - Laurence Sterne, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent." (Bk.I, ch. XIX)

There is "magick" in a name, magic particularly in a nickname - though admittedly not much in a nickname like Magic. But imagine having a loose football in your possession on the near and urgent approach of someone named Bronko Nagurski. Or Night Train Lane. Imagine trying to catch a running back named Hopalong Cassady or Crazylegs Hirsch. Or The Refrigerator (Perry).

Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski

Gone, it seems, are the great nicknames of yesteryear. Where are the Night Trains or the Hacksaws? Where Crazylegs, Bronko and the Bird, Babe and Yogi (named for his penchant of sitting the bench with legs drawn under him and crossed like a yogi's)? Where Wilt the Stilt, Doctor J and the Pearl, the Joes (Shoeless and Joltin'), Peewee and the Duke? Where Dizzy and Daffy, Tank and Bulldog? The great Yankees of the 1920s boasted a Babe, a Bubbles and a Dusty, besides the labial loudmouth Leo "The Lip" Durocher (his mediocrity at the plate memorialized by Babe Ruth's own nickname for him, "The All-American Out").

Leo "The Lip" Durocher

The White Sox fielded Jiggs Donohue, the Happys Felsch and Foreman, a Woodie, a Dummy, a Bubber, a Bump and a Mule. The New York Giants of the '50s boasted two Roseys (Brown and Grier). Not to mention any number of Reds and Docs, Patsys and Paddys, Dutches and Frenchies, Chicks and Kids, Fuzzys and Buzzys and Bibbles (Bawel). Even (in a less ironic time) a Queenie (O'Rourke), who played baseball back in the day for the forgotten New York Highlanders. University of Minnesota teams of the late '20s fielded a fullback named the "Owatonna Thunder," a localized meteorological commonplace generally accompanied by snow.

Admittedly in more recent decades there is "Goose" Gossage, that son of Colorado famed for his architectural facial hair. Not a bad nickname at that.

 "Goose" Gossage in Yankee uniform

Still, lest anyone dismiss all this as mere nostalgic lament, I urge in defense of this screed that "studies were done." The New York Times reports in today's edition that "there is widespread agreement that the use of nicknames across American society has steadily slipped" - most notably in professional sports, where such data is most available. "In an age of A-Rod and D-Wade, when nicknames rarely conjure imagery beyond a corporate logo, it can be easy to bemoan the loss of another slice of simpler times."

One possible reason for the diminishing frequency of the colorful nickname is simply that nicknames are nowadays less useful, given the trend toward less-common names. Kobe Bryant doesn't need a nickname; his father, Joe, was more memorable as Jellybean. And what else would you call someone named Carmello?

Another possible reason is that nicknames were once awarded to remark physical attributes. Lefty or Whitey are harmless enough sobriquets, but gone are the "simpler times" when a chap could boldly go as Fatty.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

The loss is lamentable because it is also a loss of imagination. All things considered, "The Lip" by any other name would have been just another loudmouth . . .

Jim Boeheim (Syracuse Orangemen)

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