All my life, I’ve wanted a nickname. Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any name would smell as sweet, but I think people would find me a lot more awesome if everyone called me… I don’t know… Dr. Awesome. Sure I’ve always had “Josh” as opposed to my given name “Joshua,” but that’s not cool. It’s more like an abbreviation. It’s just like saying “photo” instead of photograph. People use it out of convenience.
A good nickname is about description. You hear it and you know something about the person. You hear Babe Ruth called The Colossus of Clout (The Colossus of Clout!) and you know that he hits for power. Side note: My indelible tendency to repeat The Great Bambino’s moniker comes from the movie The Sandlot, notable in its own right for nicknames such as Hamilton “Ham” Porter, Michael “Squints” Palledorous, Alan “Yeah-Yeah” McClennan, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, and The Beast. Each sobriquet gives us a little insight into what that character might be like.
Sometimes a nickname is dead-on to the point where it eclipses the person’s original name. Take Whitey Bulger for example. That is the mark of an excellent nickname. Generally, giving yourself a nickname is considered gauche. I remember laughing hysterically when my childhood best friend showed me his brother’s video game high scores all logged under the initials “ACE.” We convulsed with laughter until he beat us up. The self-applied nickname is only good when it catches on like with Sting or Muhammad Ali.
I’ve never had a nickname that stuck. Over the course of my life, several different people have referred to me as “Gondy” or “Ghandi” for brief periods. Usually it’s in reference to my last name and/or my generally peaceful demeanor. Once it was by a basketball coach alluding to my lack of aggression on the court. Still, I’d take it, but it never seems to catch on. Consequently, I have severe nickname envy. Here are some of my favorite (and least favorite) nicknames.
Nickname perfection. It’s badass. It’s accurate. It has “Captain” in it. What more can you want from a name? You know this guy isn’t going to babysit your kids or help you move. He’s going to live on a boat and hunt alligators. Kind of a jerk, but kind of awesome.
Chocolate Thunder (Darryl Dawkins)
Darryl Dawkins, formerly of the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets, is a large African American man (hence, Chocolate) who shattered backboards with his slam dunks (re: Thunder). You know right from the beginning that he’s a cool guy because his name starts with Chocolate, which is always great unless you’re a dog. It ends with Thunder, which is also pretty excellent unless you are a dog. The flip side to this nickname was Jason “White Chocolate” Williams who earned his nickname for playing with a style more typical of black athletes (not for tasting horrible, like you may suspect when hearing “White Chocolate.”)
The Little Magician (Martin Van Buren)
Politicians over the past century have been laden with crappy nicknames. Tricky Dick. Slick Willy. LBJ. But there was a heyday for political nicknames, a golden age that I imagine will never be surpassed. Military generals had some great ones (Stonewall Jackson, Bad Hand). But the greatest of all these nicknames was “The Little Magician.” Van Buren earned the nickname for his skillful manipulation of “machine politics,” which kind of sounds like cheating. Even more skillful than his political schemes was the way he got his nickname to be something magical and not “That Dick Van Buren.” Way to go, Marty!
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Margaret Brown)
This lady survived the Titanic, which is more than Billy Zane can say about himself. Her nickname is triumphant and specific. I’m all about it. The only drawback is that Molly had never been short for Margaret. But I’ll let it slide because she survived the greatest boat disaster in history (not counting Walter Matthau/Jack Lemon old-man buddy flick Out to Sea).
Charles, God Rest His Soul (Charles, My Former Roommate)
Just before the beginning of my junior year in college, my upstairs neighbor accidentally started a fire in her kitchen that displaced me and my roommates for two weeks. At the same time, our friend Charles who lived downstairs from us decided to take a break from school. Whenever anyone asked us where Charles was, we would sigh deeply and lie: “He died in the fire.” To perpetuate the prank, we would preface all stories about him by saying things like: “We always used to watch South Park with Charles, God Rest His Soul. He would have wanted us to watch South Park tonight.” Sure, it was real dark humor. But our house had just burned down. Cut us some slack.
Honorable Mentions: Flo Jo/J. Lo/Etc. (Florence Griffith Joyner/Jennifer Lopez/Etcetera)
Not my favorite set of nicknames, but they were trendsetters. Everyone now has a friend who goes by T-Mo or L-Mac. Even Twilight stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are known as R-Pat and K-Stew respectively. So while these names don’t get a lot of points for cleverness or descriptiveness, I give them credit for blazing a trail for nicknames of the future.
Least Favorite Nicknames:
Dog the Bounty Hunter
Too many moving parts here. If you’re going to call yourself Something the Something Else, the first something has to be a recognizable name and the second something is what your job is. Vlad the Impaler. Tony the Tiger. Cedric the Entertainer. Dog the Bounty Hunter just sounds wrong. Are you a dog or are you a bounty hunter? I guess it has to be the former, because the other way would have to be “Bounty Hunter the Dog,” which is the name of a dachshund I intend to own in the future. Either way, it’s a weak nickname, dude.
His Airness (Michael Jordan)
Michael Jordan is arguably the best basketball player in history, yet he has a nickname that makes it sound like he played the game wearing plaid knickers and a giant fur hat. Jordan played for the Bulls, not the redcoats. We couldn’t have worked out something more intimidating for him? The Assassin. The Closer (too late now that Kyra Sedgwick has taken it over). Anything. Ditto for Charles Barkley’s “Sir Charles” handle. Why were we giving early 90’s basketball legends stuffy British nicknames? I give up.
The Donald (Donald Trump)
Sorry, Mr. Trump. When I hear “The Donald,” the first one that comes to mind is a duck with a sailor hat and no pants. When you take second place to a cartoon animal, you no longer get to put “The” in front of your name. Plus, “The Donald” doesn’t say anything about who you are or what you do. It’s a pleading attempt for singularity and power. But look, if you were really “The” Donald, you wouldn’t need to say so. Does Oprah run around calling herself “The Oprah?” Does Spongebob Squarepants need to make people call him “The Spongebob?” No and no. Case closed.
LL Cool J
LL Cool J actually stands for “Ladies Love Cool James.” I have roughly infinity problems with this. Problem the first: A nickname is to take your real name and make it a punch descriptor, usually shorter than the source material. This pseudonym takes James Smith and turns it into an entire sentence. Nicknames are not supposed to contain a subject and a predicate. Just “Cool James” or “Cool J” would have been enough. But he had to tack the “Ladies Love” on there. Do they? Methinks the Cool J doth protest too much.
Sasha Fierce/Chris Gaines (Beyoncé/Garth Brooks)
So you’re a famous, beloved, zillion times platinum music star. Then you decide that you will release an entire album under a new name with a new persona, but that persona is just a regular person. Come on, guys. Show some creativity. I’d love to hear a country album where Garth Brooks performs as a time traveling spaceman named “Zingo Babbletron.” And who wouldn’t want to hear Beyoncé croon a set of murder ballads as “Loretta Zilch”? Unless you can come up with something interesting, though, stick to what you’re good at, B and G. We love you for who you are.
There are so many great nicknames out there! All I want is one! Seriously everyone. Next time you see me, can you please call me “Dr. Awesome?” Just don’t tell anyone I said so.