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September 2019
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Where have all the nicknames gone?

Watching simultaneously the Republican primary race, the NFL playoffs and continued coverage of military’s efforts in Afghanistan, one can’t help but wonder: Where have all the nicknames gone?

In fact, looking over the past few decades, one might say there is a disturbing scarcity of nicknames in popular culture.

Where are the Ol’ Hickories, Mean Joe Greens and Desert Foxes lately? The Desert Fox, now that was a nickname that got a country excited. True, it denoted German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who fought for the wrong side in World War II, but at least it got you fired up to fight against a Desert Fox.

David Petraeus, current CIA director, and a four star general active in both Iraq and Afghanistan, needed a nickname. Apparently he was sometimes referred to as King David by the Iraqis and some of the coalition forces, but the name didn’t make its way into common usage. A headline referring to King David would have left most Americans looking for some Biblical connection.

The current crop of Republican presidential wanna-be’s are surely nickname worthy.  Though her campaign has now ended, Michele Bachmann was a woman in need of a moniker. And Mitt Romney, there’s a guy who would look a lot more down to earth if someone would just dub him “the Romnster” or something like. Sounds so working class, and he could use a touch of that. The only guy already fixed is Newt Gingrich. His first name is perfect already.

In sports, we’re similarly lackluster lately in naming our stars. Drew Brees, the New Orleans quarterback gets a pass, his name being pretty cool already. But Tom Brady is just Tom Brady, and even Tim Tebow is just Tebow. The Detroit Lions had Megatron (Calvin Johnson, formerly of Ga. Tech), but that’s about it for any of the teams making the postseason.

No present nickname reaches the level of public recognition of some earlier ones still remembered by sports fans. Magic Johnson might as well have been that Laker great’s real name. (In fact, he was born Earvin––good call moving to Magic.)  And there was Babe, Babe Ruth, the blessed nickname of George Herman Ruth. Don’t forget the Golden Bear (Jack Nicklaus). Those were names you could get excited to watch.

These days,  the world of rap music still shows the American public appreciates nicknames. Look there for names like Snoop Dog, Jay-Z and Puff Daddy (or whatever he calls himself lately).

It’s the rest of modern culture that has either gone so bland or over-marketed that our nicknames have sagged. In politics, maybe everyone has gotten too nasty to use any nicknames except slurs. Back in the 1800s, at one point, you had Ol’ Hickory (Andrew Jackson) as president. His V.P. was Martin Van Buren (The Little Magician, if you liked him; Van Ruin, if you didn’t).

In modern times, the last good nickname was Ike for Dwight Eisenhower, and that wasn’t so much a nickname as just shortening his long last name. While catchy, Slick Willy for Bill Clinton or Tricky Dick for Richard Nixon don’t count. Those weren’t nicknames as much as put-downs.

The idea positive nicknames might be brought back for politics is too much to hope for. We’re likely stuck with negative and thoroughly un-imaginative titles for a while.

But maybe in sports, an area of life we still have fun with, we could free our imaginations to find a “Bear” (Paul Bear Bryant) on the sidelines or a "Sweetness" (Walter Payton) running the ball with a Mean Joe Green on defense.

One can only hope there’s still creativity and desire enough left in America to have some heroes with cool names in 2012.