‘Have you met Sperm?’ a friend from Westminster School asked me at a teenage party once. Sperm was a charming, pretty, confident girl but, still, I didn’t feel quite ready to use her startling nickname on our first meeting.
My own nickname – Mons, Latin for Mountain or Mount – seemed unadventurously fogeyish by comparison. I didn’t pass it on to Sperm.
Old school nicknames can be fantastically rude – but the ruder they are, the more affectionate. Sperm happily responded to the nickname – and her friends used it in an utterly friendly way. They had long detached the word’s meaning from its use as a name.
Canvassing my friends, they came up with some extraordinarily insulting names that their schoolfriends still use now they are in middle age: Deafy (a hard-of-hearing boy); Conehead, lovingly abbreviated to Cone; Cyclops, the boy who lost his eye in a javelin accident on sports day; and Sauerkraut, the German girl at an English boarding school. Most chillingly of all – straight out of Evelyn Waugh – was the nickname bestowed in a 1970s minor public school: Mum’s Dead, to which the bereaved boy cheerily responded.
The journeys of school nicknames can be wonderfully complicated. They often derive from opposites. Mastermind, for instance, was the name given to a remarkably dim friend of mine at Eton. Another pal is called ‘Lentil’ – rather a friendly-sounding name until you find out it’s short for his school nickname, Lentil Brain.
School nicknames have been around for ever. Percy Bysshe Shelley, mercilessly bullied at Eton, behaved in such an odd way that he got called ‘Mad Shelley’. Also at Eton, Aldous Huxley was dubbed ‘Ogie’, short for ‘Ogre’. At Harrow, Churchill was called ‘Copperknob’, because of his red hair.