Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

28 January 2013

Call me the nicknamemeister (or N-dog for short)

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

On ITV's Great Night Out last week (episode 3, 25.01.13) the character Hodge handed his mate a birthday card and said Happy Birthday Glynster. Unremarkable perhaps but this coincided with the recent launch of Partridge Slang Online and the publication of the 2nd edition of the wonderful 'New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English'. Eric Partridge's original slang dictionary (first published in 1937) ran to 8 editions culminating in 1984 and is rightly acknowledged as the definitive record of 20th century British slang. The New Dictionary (edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor and now in its 2nd edition) maintains the tradition impressively, enhanced by a more conventional approach to citing published sources and a broader focus to include examples of non-mainstream vocabulary worldwide, albeit restricted to usage since 1945.

The New Dictionary intentionally omits many of the traditional British nicknames Partridge included in earlier versions. Generally attributed to Forces slang, many of these gained more widespread currency such that people my age (born 1964) probably know the odd Smudger (surname Smith), Nobby (surname Clarke), Chalky (surname White), Lofty (anyone considered unnaturally tall or indeed unusually small) or Curly (anyone bald or with straight hair). Given that many of these nicknames are now less common, it's perhaps not surprising they're no longer considered worthy of inclusion. Nonetheless, some clearly remain sufficiently alive in the public consciousness to warrant mainstream cultural reference - witness Lofty Holloway (EastEnders, 1983-1985) and Curly Watts (Coronation Street, 1983-2003). This speaker recorded by the BBC in 2004 in Filey, North Yorkshire also demonstrates continued awareness among speakers of a certain generation:

[19 mins. 49 secs.] only during the war I was obviously a Nobby ... every Clark was called Nobby

Editorial decisions about what to exclude must be a lexicographer's nightmare, but given Partridge's reputation I wonder whether it might be possible in future editions to reconsider entry criteria for nicknames. I've been keeping records for some time and my own data suggests a tendency nowadays (more common among males?) to derive nicknames by adapting surnames. What's intriguing is that there appear to be morpho-phonological (and sociolinguistic) principles at play. Here, with well-known examples from the sporting and broadcasting world, is a selection of productive processes in widespread use in the UK according to my observations.

1. Surnames of one syllable generally acquire the suffix <-y> - e.g. Scholesy (footballer Paul Scholes), Coxy (DJ Sara Cox) and Longy (Rugby League player Sean Long)

2. Polysyllabic surnames can either:

i. be abbreviated to the first syllable + <-o>. This is particularly productive with surnames ending in <-son> - e.g. Lawro (football commentator Mark Lawrenson), Johnno (former Rugby Union player Martin Johnson), Stevo (Rugby League commentator Mike Stephenson)

ii. be abbreviated to the first syllable + <-s> - e.g. Becks (footballer David Beckham), Ramps (cricketer Mark Ramprakash) and Boycs (cricket commentator Geoff Boycott)

iii. be abbreviated to the first syllable + <-ers>. This is possibly more common among middle-class speakers and in private schools - e.g. Aggers (cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew), Chappers (sports broadcaster Mark Chapman) and Tuffers (former cricketer Phil Tufnell)

More recent innovations (arguably emanating from the USA?) include:

3. definite article + the suffix <-meister>, commonly abbreviated to <-ster> - e.g. Hodge's use of Glynster

4. definite article + initial letter + the suffix <-dog> - one of my daughter's teachers whose surname begins with <P>, for instance, is affectionately referred to as the P-dog

There are other variants and, inevitably, occasional exceptions. Olympic Gold Medallist Bradley Wiggins is, of course, neither Wiggs nor Wiggers (he attended a North London comprehensive) but Wiggo. However, anecdotally I sense there are sufficient examples that conform to the rules to support a fledgling 'theory'. Meister, ster and dog all merit entries at Urban Dictionary as do several individual examples of 1 and 2 above but only a respected authority such as Partridge could satisfactorily establish dates, precedent and social/geographic distribution. I wonder if it's time for a forthcoming edition to take note?


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