'Matter of Laugh or Death,' the award-winning humor column
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
(appearing each week in the Republican-American newspaper, Waterbury, CT)
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
An old college buddy called the other night. I hadn’t heard from him in at least fifteen years, and when he identified himself by his real name, at first I didn’t make the connection. But then it clicked, and I blurted out, “Hey Stinky!”
“Hey Dumpster!” he exclaimed, “You remembered.”
“Well, of course!” I said. “Whattaya been up to?”
“Not much,” he replied. “I’m a neurosurgeon now. Living in Baltimore.”
“Whoa. Doctor Stinky. Not bad.”
That nostalgic phone call made me realize that very few adults use nicknames. Back in college, everyone had a nickname, sometimes multiple nicknames, depending on how many character flaws could be exploited. That, of course, was the whole point of nicknames, to emphasize some less-than-perfect aspect of one’s face, body, voice, hair, name, hometown, etc. Back then, my circle of friends included Booger, Buzzard Beak, Squeaky, Pinhead, Bubble Butt, Fur Ball (she never did like that name), Puke, Zit, and Dave. (Dave’s real name was something like Mujauhamminan, but he told us that in his native tongue, “dave” meant “bubble butt.”)
My nickname “Dumpster” (one of many—I’m just a fountain of exploitable features) was partly derived from my surname, and partly a description of my uncanny ability to imitate a garbage disposal during meals. Stinky’s nickname—excuse me, Dr. Stinky’s nickname—actually involved a dumpster, specifically the one he fell into behind our fraternity house while frantically trying to locate valuable property he feared had been accidentally tossed out with the trash. He never did find it (and we never did tell him we smoked it all while he was at class), but when he scrambled out of that slimy metal box, he had acquired a new nickname. I’m sure he explained this story in detail to the Maryland Board of Surgeons.
Since leaving college, the use of nicknames has been quite rare. For example, the actual names of the guys in my office are: Ken, Joe, Tom, Mike, Matt, Bruce, Steve, and Bill. However, the informal and friendly terms we use to address each other are: Ken, Joe, Tom, Mike, Matt, Bruce, Steve, and Bill.
Not only is there a complete absence of nicknames, we don’t even have a single multi-syllabic moniker in the whole firm. That’s pitiful. Without even thinking hard (trust me, I never think hard while writing these columns), I can come up with appropriate nicknames for everyone: Hammer, Big Red, Porky, Gabby, Smokey, Whitey, Limey, and, well, Bill. (It’s gauche to give one’s self a nickname. But I’m sure if the other guys thought about it, they’d give me a suitable handle, such as Mr. Wonderful.)
And these nicknames aren’t even offensive or vulgar. Again, without even thinking hard, I can come up with appropriate tasteless nicknames for my co-workers. But I shall refrain from doing so for two reasons: (1) it would be rude and unprofessional, and (2) I need my job.
The best thing about nicknames is that they keep people humble. No matter how successful a person becomes, it’s hard to be pompous and arrogant when everyone refers to him or her as Fish Face.
Since our society is currently experiencing an epidemic of pomposity and arrogance—even among people who are not successful—it might be a good idea if everyone used college-type nicknames. Imagine a presidential press conference. The first reporter stands and asks a question: “Jughead, why are you cutting taxes when the deficit is rising?”
The president replies, “Well, you see, Lizard Breath, tax cuts spur economic activity and actually increase tax revenues. Next question.”
Or imagine you’re in need of emergency brain surgery while visiting, oh let’s pick a place, Baltimore. Many worrisome thoughts are racing through your mind. (Not the least of which is: “Will I ever come out of this coma?”)
But then you realize you’re in good hands, and the medical staff is relaxed and confident, when you hear a nurse say, “We’re ready to begin surgery, Dr. Stinky.”
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