Brenda Wilson Wooley
I once had a great-great uncle everyone called "Dump." But his real name was Griggs. I had a great-uncle named Arleigh, but he was Uncle "Doc" to us. Another uncle’s name was Neil, but he was "Toby" to many. And I was seven or eight years old before I learned my paternal grandfather's real name.
"William Henry? I thought Paw Paw's name was Pat!"
"Well," Maw Maw said, "He just always went by Pat."
We had a neighbor named Walter, but everyone called him "Dummy."
"That's just awful! Why do they call him that?"
"His daddy called him Dummy when he was little," said Maw Maw, "So everybody else did, too.
"Was he dumb?"
She hesitated, a thoughtful look on her face, "Well...not really."
Then there was "Grasshopper," who could often be found in the city jail, "Catfish," and "Tailgate." There was "Monk," who ran a filling station in Bardwell and had only one ear. (There's a story behind that one, but I won't go into it now!) And "June Bug," who, among other things, dug ditches.
There was a little man called "Hawk" who set up a stand each weekend and sold his wares along Highway 51.
"Is that why they call him Hawk, because he looks up and down the highway like a hawk?"
"No," Daddy laughed, "He's hawking that junk!"
The owner of the local pool hall was called "Fatty," and his brother was "Skinny." They had shady reputations. People were always speculating about how Fatty got all his money, and rumor had it Skinny killed a man somewhere down around Fulton in his youth.
Nicknames at home were no exception. When I was little, my older brother Terry called me "Goose." Our younger sisters, Pitty and Mary Ellen, were “Duck” and "Chicken."
"If you don't stop calling me that," I yelled, chasing him around and around the yard, "I'm gonna knock your head off!"
Terry never called us those fowl names at school, and he stopped it altogether after a while. Maybe he was afraid his classmates would get wind of it and he would be "Rooster" from there on in.
Terry's nickname for us as a group was "scrubs."
"Come on, all you scrubs," he yelled, "Let's play baseball!"
My maternal grandfather called Daddy "Lad" all of his life, and Paw Paw’s daughter and my aunt Mona, was "Tildy" until she was almost grown. Their hired hand's name was Arthur, but Paw Paw called him "Gyp" (short for Gypsy). And that is only a small portion of Paw Paw's repertoire.
Grown women in our neck of the woods were exempt from nicknames. With one exception.
"Big Jim" was way over six feet tall with very broad shoulders. We often spotted her in bib overalls, a fishing pole over her shoulder, walking along the highway between Berkley and Bardwell. She wore men’s work shoes. Big ones. On our way to town, Maw Maw sometimes pulled the Chevrolet over and chatted with her.
"How you doin', Big Jim? Caught any big ones lately?"
"Naw, Miss Muriel. Fish ain't bitin' today."
Pitty and I had never heard of a woman with a man's name, even if it was a nickname. Or a woman who dressed like a man, for that matter.
As Maw Maw steered the Chevrolet back on the road and headed toward Bardwell, we gazed at Big Jim's shrinking figure in the rearview window. "What's her real name?"
"Can't remember," said Maw Maw.
I would be remiss if I left out my part in the nicknaming process. Pitty and I enjoyed Sunday School, but we got bored during the long, drawn-out sermons that followed. So we looked around the congregation for items of interest.
We didn't have long to look.
Hawk-nosed Mr. Ed sat dozing, chin on his chest. Every now and then he opened one eye and winked, then his chin dropped back to his chest and he started dozing again.
We nicknamed him "Owl."
Our great-uncle Louis (called "Pistol" by many) was dozing as well. His stomach was as big as a nine-months-pregnant woman, suspenders stretching and straining each time he took a breath. His bald head was shiny, and perfectly round.
"It looks like as a basketball!" Pitty whispered.
His nickname became "Basketball."
In the middle of an ice storm that winter, one of the deacons fell in his barnyard and broke his hip. After that, he was "Broken Butt." (We shortened it to "BB" later.)
I know, I know. That's terrible! But we had to do something to keep our minds off the fiery pits of hell!
People all over the country have nicknames, but I think it's more prevalent in the South. Until I began this piece, even I didn't realize how prevalent it was. If I sat down and really thought about it, I could probably come up with dozens more.
Yesterday, as this piece was rolling around in my head, Pitty called. So I asked her what she thought about Southerners' penchant for nicknames.
"Well, I don't think they mean it in a bad way," she said, "It's more in fun, wouldn't you say?"
I agree. After all, Patsy is "Pitty" and my daughter Suzanne is "Bizzy." But there are exceptions, like Dump and Dummy. And a few others.
Brenda Wilson Wooley's work has appeared in Birmingham Arts Journal, Etchings, Existere, Amarillo Bay, Mississippi Crow, River Walk Journal, Long Story Short, and elsewhere. She makes her home in Paducah, Kentucky, where she is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.
Brenda Wilson Wooley