Sailors Have A Word For It - Nicknames






'POSSIBLY the most charming tradition of the British Navy is its unchanging spirit of fraternity. It is a sacred fact that once naval men have been “old ships” (old shipmates) there exists — with few exceptions — forever after a spirit of camaraderie amongst them. What helps to preserve this affinity is the fact that ninety-five per cent, of the men of the British Navy hail one another by a nickname, a nickname that sticks to each mortal for the term of his nautical career, aye, and for many years after.


A doting mother may have had her first-born baptized Clarence Ivor Agustus White but, should he join the Navy he will only be accepted as “Knocker.” The “tiffy” recruit; may feel justifiably proud of being called Alexander Graham Bell, but his shipmates will only know him as “Daisy". The Navy List may regally be headed by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Felix Montague St. Finbar de Sales Murphy, but the Lower Deck will acknowledge him only as “Spud’’ simply that and nothing more.


Naval officers usually address one another by their sur­names; lower deck ratings scarcely ever do. Jack clings loyally to the fraternal and spurns the conventional. He addresses his neighbour either by his Christian name or a nickname and, even if he cannot recall either of these, he will convert the surname into a Christian name by flavouring it with the vesture of intimacy. For instance, if he notes that Brown, Jones, Robinson or Harper is not conspicuously tall enough to be dubbed Lofty, diminutive enough to be styled Shorty, slim enough to be called Snakey, auburn-aired enough to be termed Ginger, dark-skinned enough to be named Nigger, he would just hail them fraternally Browny, Joney, Robbie, Harps, or Harpy. In such circumstances names like Thompson, Johnson, Lawrence, Ferguson, Clements and West are more intimately interpreted as Tomo,, Johno., Lawrie., Fergy., Clemo. and Westo., while again, cognomens like Connor, Nichols, Davies, Donovan and Cooper are not infrequently appreviated to Conn., Nick., Dave., Dun. and Coops. unless, be it noted, nationality asserts its stronger claims, in which Mick Connor, Taff Nichols, Tim Donovan and Scowse Davies may find themselves hailed simply as Mick, Taff, Tim and Scowse.


Quite a large number of nicknames in the Service are of the double-barreled kidney such as Nobby Clarke, Wiggie Bennett, Shiner Wright, etc. but, in the main, however, nick­names are derived from celebrities — and this, brazenly irres­pective of gender. Murphy does not mind the “Spud,” nor Brookes the “Rajah,” nor Burns the honourable appellative of “Bobbie,” but I am sure that when they join the Navy, Messrs. Bell, Ford and Gray must have found it not a little embarrassing on very soon being hailed as Daisy, Florrie and Dolly respectively. If a Derek Tilly entered the Navy he would promptly be assigned the more ornamental tally of Vesta; while a man called Garbo (or even Garber) must be stoically prepared to be accepted as Greta; again, the most bewhiskered he-man afloat whose name happens lo be Temple must prepare to recognise himself in future as nothing more virile than Shirley.


In his care-free partiality to nicknames. Jack does not blush to discriminate between celebrities and notorieties. Bruce Landsbury, a hardened drinker answers to “George” without a twinge of conscience, while Stanley Booth, a notorious delinquent, accepts the caption of “General” without the vestige of a blush. Conversely, an ardent Salvationist called Todd, be he ever so saintly, must meekly accept the shady correlative of “Sweeney.” Sylvester Turpin may be the mirror of all truth and honesty, but his shipmates will warmly acclaim him as “Dick” (just the same as they greet every Sheppard as “Jack” and every King as “Tom”), and that  charitable and deeply-devout young coder, so popular with all his shipmates, Damien Wesley Peace, is doomed to be hailed as “Charlie” as long as he ploughs the briny.


As I have pointed out, nicknames are adapted from characters who have caught the public eye in all branches of life — actors, cinema stars, bookies, evangelists, rogues, boxers, murderers and millionaires. They are, however, subject to change, as in the case of a character whose popularity or notoriety eclipses that of a namesake of a former generation.  In 1910 (I remember) all Lees were called John in acknow­ledgment of “the man they could not hang.” To-day every Lee is a Taney a welcome change. I also recall about that period one or two Wildes who hotly resented being hailed as Oscar. No doubt they were considerably mollified a few years later when the appellative changed to Jimmy — about the period when the “mighty atom” took his place in the firmament of British boxers. Before the world war every Morrison was a Stienie; to-day the substitution, of Herbert is gaining favour.


Years ago, every Payne was a “Whacker” as a compli­ment to some hard-hitter of that name; to-day, Comrade Payne is in grave danger, of being labelled “Batchy” simply because the escapades of a devil-may-care of that designation are not yet forgotten — in the Western wing of the Service at any rate. Halls to-day are all “Nobbies,” but two decades ago every Hall was a “Blinker,” in commemoration of one Blinker Hall (a naval captain) who was afflicted with a most embarrasssing habit of blinking and, believe it or not,  time was, when every Barker was a “Bill” To-day “Bill” is promoted to “Colonel” as a testimony to the amount of public interest shown in a great Court drama some years ago, the central figure of which was a female who for years had masqueraded as a man — and a colonel at that!


Ratings, however, whose surnames bear no affinity with the Great Ones and whose appearance, or physical pecu­liarities cannot easily be symbolised, do not go free. Failing all else they are hailed by a friendly and familiar variation of their Christian names. John invariably becomes Johnnie and Montague Monty. Again, they may fall into a class for which a fashionable patronymic is always, found. Surnames of the baptismal type, for instance, are usually duplicative. Phillips is always Phil., Samuels is always Sammy, and Andrews is, of course, Andy. In the third person this class is repetitional,, such as, Tommy Thomas, Billy Williams, Robbie Roberts, Jacky Johns and Jimmy James. - Again, there is the onomatopoeic and collateral types of nicknames which are leisurely adapted without respect either for modesty or euphony. Thus we have Bogey Knight, Windy Gale, Boozey Beer, Donkey Bray, Monkey Brand, Jim Crowe, Dicky Bird, Chimpy Monk, Bagsey Baker, Conger Eale, Bunker Hill, Jack Frost, Trader Horne, and so on.


The intelligent reader does not need telling why every Brookes is a Rajah, every Young a Brigham, every Tate a Harry, and every Bailey a Bill. There are, however, a few stereotyped nicknames, the etymology of which it may be interesting to trace. I have gone to much trouble, and had to listen to many heated arguments in order to get this infor­mation and, while I have every reason to believe it to be authentic, clearly there can be no finality on matters of this kind. So now let us review some of the interesting personnel.


Spike Sullivan, Jerry Driscoll, Pedlar Palmer, Jimmy Wilde and Taney Lee were boxersv of rare merit, the first two being naval champions. (Mr. Sullivan, by the way, got his; “Spike” from an efficient wire-splicer of a generation before); Jumper Collins was a champion jumper; Sweeney Todd, the demon barber who bumped off customers while shaving them and Rattler Morgan emerges from a song hail­ing him as a champion down our way “ playing his tanner mouth-organ.”


Bogie Knight is derived from a pantomimic character; Bogie (bogie man) being associated with the night.


Dusty Miller has two significations: (1) The trade of a miller being associated with flour-dust. (2) When soft bread as a ration made its welcome debut to the Royal Navy the first naval contractor to supply it was the firm of Andrew Miller. The dust caused by the bread being stowed in the bread-room gave rise to the “ Dusty.”


Nobby Clarke, the most immutable of all nicknames, hails from the Army. Clarke was confounded with “ clerk ” and the clerks of the early part of last century were indigent, shabby-genteel lads who did great work and were expected to dress well on a starvation wage. They however tried to raise their social prestige by putting on airs and “doing the grand,” and to such an extent were they successful that they were regarded as “nobs” (i.e. toffs), and were often referred to as nobby clerks. Nob, by the way, as a synonym for an “upper ten” guy comes from university reference books where graduates of high social standing have “nob” (short for nobility), after their names to indicate that they are of noble blood — God bless the mark.


Buck Taylor originated in much the same way. The smart tailors were patronised by “bucks,” those sublime ornaments of fashion like Beau Brummel, whose stupendous contribution to the social upkeep was a display of finery in apparel.


Spud Murphy is essentially Irish. The potato was a-staple food of the Irish poor during a century of want and distress, and so devoted, were they to the.“spud” (which was slang) that it grew, to be the appellative of many Irish names — Murphy, Maloney, Muldowney, Gilligan, Hannigan, Callaghan and Brannigan. Of these names Murphy is the commonest, so “Spud” became associated more with Murphy than any of the others. Indeed, potatoes were often called “Murphies” and “Spud,” which was once the con­comitant of Mick, Tim or Pat, was duly assigned as the monopoly of Mr. Murphy himself.


Hooky Walker is believed by many to be a seafaring celebrity with a hook for an arm. This is not so ; “Hooky Walke"’ does not spring from a name but from a phrase which was current round about 1810. The term was identified with something suspiciously untrue or cryptically superstitious. “That’s all Hooky Walker,” was the sceptic’s retort, or the modern equivalent for “You’re kidding.”


Knocker White has also a dual claim. The one declares him to have been a rough and tough pugilist whom his associates acclaimed as the “knocker”; the other re­counts of a Chinese washerman who, when soliciting patronage for his crude laundry qualifications, was famed for his frank avowal that he could “knock ’em white,” i.e. wash the clothes white.


Dodger Long is yet another dual claifn. A detective called Long, because of his great penchant for shadowing, was famed among ex-gaol-birds as “The Dodger.” Another version declares that Dodger Long is but a corruption of some rollicking old ditty, “Dodge along.”


Pony More (or Moore) was a famous racing celebrity who had a great habit of saying, “I’ll bet you a pony! ” A “pony” at that period was the slang expression for £25, so dubbed because the sum was usually assessed as the price of a pony.


Spike Sullivan was a gigantic Irishman of the seventies. He was a skilful seaman and had no equal in the art of handling a marline-spike.


Pincher Martin — Somewhere between the forties and the fifties of last century, Captain Martin (afterwards Admiral Sir W. Martin) came into prominence. Renowned for his remarkable forensic skill in cornering or tripping-up a witness or delinquent at defaulters or Courts of Inquiry, he was promptly dubbed the Pincher both by officers and men.


Tug Wilson—Not satisfied with the manner in which a ship came to anchor, an admiral named Wilson sent a signal, ordering the ship to unmoor, proceed outside the breakwater and return to anchorage in a more creditable manner. The repetition failed to satisfy him so he sent a further signal to the captain of the offending ship, this time an ultimatum — to proceed outside and return once more, and if the evolution was not this time performed satisfactorily, he (the Admiral) would have his flagship take the erring ship in tow — a derisive spectacle for every ship in the fleet. Ever since that incident every Wilson has been “Tug.”


WiggIe Bennett’s origin is said to be anecdotal. It is believed to refer to the exploits of a devil-may-care named Bennett, which always resulted in his being up before his superiors for a “wigging.” The name was thus handed down to all Bennetts.


The following' are the best-known double-barreled nick­names and may be accepted as the stereotyped category:


Darby Allen, Nobby Clarke, Wiggie Bennett, Pony -More, Dusty Miller, Dodger Long, Jerry Driscol,l Slinger Woods, Daisy Bell, Jerry Lake, Hookey Walker, Billy Williams, Jack Doyle, Sexton Blake, Charlie Mitchell, Pincher Martin,  Steve Donoghue, Cutts Kennedy, Brigham Young.

Darby Kelly, Nobby Hall, Spike Sullivan, Sweeney Todd, Shiner Wrigh,t Spud Murphy, Bogie Knight, Knocker White, ( Florrie Ford, Jimmy Greene, Polly Hopkins, Jim Crowe, Tim Daly, Olive Hoyle, Donkey Bray, Bobby Burns, Charlie Chaplin, Sky Turner, Stienie Morrison.

Major Bates, Nobby Grant, Dixie Dean, Whacker Payne, Rattler Morgan, Jumper Collins, Buck Taylor, Bagsey Baker, Dolly Gray, Jackie Fisher, Taney Lee, Jack Frost, Paddy Malone, Nat Gould, Windy Gale, Bungy Edwards, Teddy Weeks, Pusser Bond, Tom King.


Lastly there is the idiosyncratic type of nickname. In the Navy, as in any other branch of life, the potterer, the faddist, the enthusiast or fanatic does not escape notice. He very quickly is assigned a label indicative of his bent, and one that may by no means be very ornamental. I once wondered why a certain chief boatswain’s mate was known to the troops as “Old Matchsticks,” and I learned that every time the commander gave the order to clear up decks the C.B.M. supplemented with “and pick up all your match- sticks!”  A very efficient commander (whom I will call Coombes - fictitious) had a regrettable habit of scratching his head violently when, perplexed. This earned him the unmerited sobriquets, of Crabby Coombes and Lousy Luke for years; indeed I doubt if the nicknames ever left him. Blinker Hall was quite young when the Navy christened him Blinker — but he was still Blinker when he finished as an admiral.- A chief gunner’s mate, whose mouth after much oratory became very liquefied, was duly nominated  “Squegee”;  a P.O. whose lips protrude rather prominently is, to this day, called Donald Duck; another P.O.. who could not get reconciled to the stiff collar (on abandoning the blue one) developed the habit of moving his head backwards and forwards for his greater ease: this oddity earned him the title of “Tom Nod” ; a stoker who supplemented his income by washing blankets became duly esteemed as Tom Blanket, and a lieutenant-commander, on whose nose there frequently gathered a bead of perspiration, became irreverently famed as “Dewdrop.”


Not infrequently one hears the quaint misnomer type of nickname which bears testimony to Jack’s ironic sense of humour. Here one is assigned the appellative which typifies the very opposite to that which characterizes him. A notably reserved and silent individual is labelled “Noisy” a very ignorant person may be dubbed “Tom Culture,” a very ugly man, “Queenie,” and an exceedingly slow and dilatory mortal, “Speedy”, “Swift,” “Gate-crasher” or “Lightning.” The sobriquet of the captain of the heads (the rating in charge of the lavatories) was, not long ago, anything but ornamental, and the fundamental danger of all nicknames (however un­intended to hurt) is their marked liability to stick.


However, not four out of every hundred ratings in the King’s Royal Navy are ever known or hailed by their formal baptismal surnames. No one is ever addressed as plain Brown, Jones or Robinson — unless he is extremely unpopular.