Nicknames Are Back, Praise Jehovah

Nicknames Are Back, Praise Jehovah

Before we all get thoroughly tired of William ("The Refrigerator") Perry, the humongous football player filling our television screens, selling fast food, household appliances, and high-yield securities, we should say: "Thanks, big guy.'' He is helping restore the nickname to its rightful prominence. America is not only the land of the free and the home of the brave, it is also the nation-state of the scintillating sobriquet.

Sadly, nicknames had fallen into disuse. Once upon a time even our presidents had them. There was George (Father of Our Country) Washington, not to mention Old Hickory (Andrew Jackson). Zachary Taylor, not otherwise well known to 20th-century Americans, was Old Rough and Ready.

Every grade-schooler knows (or should) that our 16th President was Honest Abe Lincoln, the Rail-Splitter. These were men of legend with monikers to match. Recently we have suffered under the colorless Gerald (Jerry) Ford, James Earl (Jimmy) Carter, and Ronald (The Great Communicator) Reagan.

Were it not for sports and possibly the entertainment industry, nicknames might have vanished entirely from the American landscape. There are many athletes whose noms de guerre have superseded their true appellations, or at least have been added to them.

Fans know immediately who Doctor J is, but many a baseball enthusiast has hesitated before recalling Babe Ruth's given name. It was George. Who needs a first name, or a last one, for that matter, when you're the Sultan of Swat?

There are people who still think Stan Musial has two middle names: "The'' and "Man.'' Yale's 1923 football team fielded a halfback known as Ducky Pond. If he had a Christian name, it surely atrophied and probably fell off his birth certificate. In those days the supply of nominal epithets was stimulated mightily by the titles parents often hung around their offsprings' necks: Norbert, Thorndike, Congolia, and the like. Such afflicted children acquired a substitute handle, and quickly, or suffered the inevitable consequences.

Sometimes a personal trademark is straightforward, as in Marvelous Marvin Hagler; or satiric, witness Marvelous Marv Throneberry, a one-time first baseman with the fielding skills of Charlie Brown.

The classic ironic characterization, for someone of mammoth proportions, is Tiny. Fortunately, William Perry has more imaginative teammates, who wisely chose not to label him Too Large or Too Wide, a la Too Tall Jones, another gridiron behemoth.

There have been some spectacular nicknames outside sports, too: Elvis the Pelvis, Joe (Tailgunner) McCarthy, Calamity Jane, and Old Blue Eyes.

But they pale before their athletic counterparts. The New York Giants currently have a defensive back, Elvis Patterson, who has been "burned'' so often on long passes that his teammates have dubbed him Toast. That's a tough act to follow.

But we must try. In fact, we ought to expand Congress's duties to include "devising and proclaiming a suitable moniker for the president.'' By now, Ronald Reagan should have dozens of ersatz honorifics beyond the Great Communicator and Dutch, but he doesn't. Even his favorite statesman, Silent Cal Coolidge, had one.

The prospects for 1988 don't inspire much hope on the nickname: George Bush, Mario Cuomo, Jack Kemp, Robert (Bob) Dole, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and the lot.

Maybe it's time we put a household appliance in the Oval Office. Think of it: In three years, William Perry will be a household word and then some.