Paul Johnson

As Tom Paine wrote, ‘Every nickname is a title’

A recent movie suggests that the Duke of Edinburgh’s nickname for the Queen is ‘Cabbage’.

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A recent movie suggests that the Duke of Edinburgh’s nickname for the Queen is ‘Cabbage’. His experience dates back to the day when this delicious vegetable was overboiled into tastelessness. But now that most people cook it very lightly and so preserve its fine flavour and crispiness, the term is one of endearment, as (no doubt) he intends. The nickname is originally French, ‘mon petit chou’, and I know at least one other wife who is called cabbage by her spouse, though as an alternative to ‘Old Bag’. Royal nicknames are not as common as you might think. Edward VII was ‘Tum Tum’ (not to his face). The Prince Regent was ‘Prinny’, which let him off lightly considering how awful he was. His brother Clarence was ‘Billy’, his brother Gloucester ‘Slice’; why I know not. Charles II was ‘Old Rowley’, after a famous stallion, profuse begetter of foals and possessor of a formidable member when mounting. William II was ‘Rufus’ (red-head), Edward I ‘Longshanks’. Richard I, ‘Lion Heart’, is one of our most popular kings solely because of his nickname. Odd that Henry V, greatest of our mediaeval kings, had no sobriquet, and odder still that the monster Henry VIII never acquired a hate-name, like Ivan the Terrible or Abdul the Damned.

The etymology of nicknames is obscure, but I’m sure the Devil (Old Nick) comes into it, as does the old word ‘eke’, also. A nickname is thus an old form of aka, ‘also known as’. They abound in close families, like the Cecils and Mitfords, or in old-style clubs like White’s and Brooks’s. So the early years of the 19th century, the golden age of the clubs, was also replete with agnomens and monikers. Thus, ‘Bear’ Ellice had been with the Hudson’s Bay Company and had shot a polar bear (so he said). ‘Kangaroo’ Cooke had been to Australia, ‘Ball’ Hughes had inherited a fortune (it was short for ‘Golden Ball’). ‘Conversation’ Sharpe had the old yackety-yak-yak. Greville the diarist was ‘Punch’ because of his nose. Many of these cosy handles were recorded or even coined by Creevey, the impoverished but ultra-sociable MP whose letters bring the age to life. He called the 12th Duke of Norfolk ‘Scroop’ and the 11th ‘Jockey’ after his ancestor who figures in Shakespeare, ‘Jockey of Norfolk’. Lambton was ‘Jog’ or ‘King Jog’ after his obiter dictum that anyone should be able ‘to jog along on £40,000 a year’. Coke of Norfolk, just as rich, was ‘King Tom’. Lord Kensington was ‘Og’, being ‘King of Basham’. Byron’s banker friend, Douglas Kinnaird, was ‘Vesuvius’, not because he exploded but because he had been up there during an eruption. Some names were bestowed by the public. Thus Robinson, chancellor of the exchequer in the prosperous mid-1820s, who lowered the duty on gin (much to Charles Lamb’s delight), was known as ‘Prosperity’. But the political world, aware of his limitations — he was liable to burst into tears at the slightest difficulty — called him ‘Snip’, and Disraeli put the nails in his coffin of reputation with ‘a transient and embarrassed phantom’. Amazing to think that such a feeble creature should have been prime minister, however briefly. But then, we have seen John Major in No. 10. To move from the ridiculous to the sublime, Wellington was never referred to as the Iron Duke but as ‘the Beau’. Brougham had many nicknames, such as ‘Archfiend’, all suggestive of satanic connections. Louis XVIII was ‘Cochon’ and another fatty ‘Avoirdupois’. The tiny Lord John Russell was ‘The Widow’s Mite’ and he and his equally minute wife were ‘Pie and Thimble’.

Nicknames for women were much rarer. Creevey called the notorious Lady Holland ‘Madagascar’ (her money came from tropical spices and sugar) and the ancient Lady Salisbury ‘Old Sal’ or ‘Sally’ — she was finally burned to death in the notorious Hatfield fire. But he considered it ungentlemanly to bandy about ladies’ Christian names, the basis on which most nicknames were formed. ‘Vicky’ for the Queen was as far as he would go. Even today few girls get nicknamed, though I have known at various times a Hippo, a Popeye, a Fuzzy-Wuzzy (girl from St Hilda’s; got a first), two Jezebels and three Blondies. One girl went through her public school as ‘Poof’ — not what is meant nowadays, needless to say.

Boys get names at primary or prep school, depending usually on appearance. Cuddly ones are ‘Pussy’ or ‘Bunny’. Simian types are ‘Chimp’, ‘Monkey’, ‘Ape’ (if big) or ‘Gor’. Large boys may be ‘Jumbo’ or ‘Tiny’. Tall ones are ‘Lofty’, toothy ones ‘Croc’. I have known a ‘Horse’ with a younger brother, ‘Pony’. I was called ‘Ponker’ or ‘Clack’. Boys with dark curly hair are ‘Golly’ or ‘Woggy’. Stanley Baldwin, with bright brown stripy hair, was ‘Tiger’, a nickname often used by his wife when she was in the Ladies’ Gallery listening to him answer questions as prime minister (‘Go it, Tiger!’). Once she had to be rebuked by the speaker.

The army is, or used to be, fertile in nicknames, though they often followed a historic pattern. If your name was White you were ‘Chalky’. If Black, ‘Inky’. If Gale, ‘Windy’. If Grey, ‘Shady’. If Gosling, ‘Quack’. If Bird, ‘Dicky’. And if Murdoch, ‘Stinker’. If Legg or Legge, ‘Over’ (though oddly enough, Creevey’s friend Legge was ‘Mother Frump’). Army names last, too: I recall a field marshal who was always known as Jumbo Wilson. School nicknames sometimes stick. A fastidious friend of mine, an excellent Greek scholar, was always known as ‘Bum’ because of his prominent posterior. Hard cheese, as they say. And there was an interesting case of a boy whose surname came up in a textbook attached to the first name Mary. Thereafter he was always called Mary. He was a harmless creature with a sweet nature, unaggressive and docile. He obviously resented being called Mary. But he had a very bad, and incurable, stammer, and when thus addressed he could get nothing out at all. So he put up with it, and eventually resigned himself to answering to Mary. Soon all the boys — not just the ones in his class — called him that, and in time the masters too. Indeed, in the end — for all we know — his family did the same. Marvellous material for a short story.

Australians are profuse and ingenious in nicknames and apply them not only to people but places. Thus Britain is the Old Dart, Brisbane is Banana City, Tasmania is Apple Island and New Zealand is Enzed. But Moscow is a pawnshop and Sydney Harbour is a barber. The people who love nicknames most are the Italians. I calculate that from the 15th to the 17th century, for example, half the Italian painters are known by their nicknames, confusing to say the least. Thus Parmigianino’s real name was Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, his cognomen meaning ‘the little fellow from Parma’. Even more confusingly, his name is sometimes given as Parmigiano. Guercino, the finest draftsman of the 17th century, was actually called Giovanni Francesco Barbieri. His nickname means ‘the squinter’. I once started to compile a list of Italian painters who signed themselves by nickname but gave up in despair and exhaustion. ‘A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man,’ wrote Hazlit t. Oh, I don’t know. Who would now remember ‘Fruity’ Metcalf without his? Or ‘Badger’ Knox? All we recall about Violet Bonham Carter’s husband is his pet name, ‘Bongie’. As Tom Paine wrote, ‘Every nickname is a title’.