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April 1, 2023

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Nicknames can offer clues to past culture

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

Nicknames complicate our searches.

We come to know nicknames based upon shortened versions of given names, and we can usually "translate" such familiar diminutives. For example, we know that Peggy may (or may not) be short for Margaret, Molly for Mary, Chuck for Charles, and Kent for Kenneth.

But we often encounter nicknames that originate outside our everyday experience. We can't always know the cultural derivation of monikers based upon physical, national, or occupational characteristics, or sobriquets that derive from work culture. But if we use nicknames as clues to further research we can gain knowledge about the time and place in which the person lived. Several examples of nicknames in different cultures over time follow.

In the late 17th century my ancestor Pieter Villeroy (aka DeGarmeaux) lived in the Dutch colony of Albany, New York. I find him in Albany records under his original name, Villeroy, and under his adopted name DeGarmeaux. I also find him under F for Frenchman, as in "Pieter the Frenchman," a derogatory term that reflected his supposed "Papist" sympathies. His nickname suggests that I learn more about the Reformation in Europe and its influence on Dutch colonies.

In 1937 an unknown writer at the Tonopah (Nev.) Daily Times and Bonanza tried to untangle several fellows that claimed "Death Valley" as part of their names ("'Death Valley' Nicknames are Cause of Much Consternation," Tonopah Daily Times and Bonanza, 17 July 1937, page 1). The writer identified Death Valley Scotty, Death Valley Curley, Death Valley Red, and Death Valley Shorty. To the Tonopah writer's mind, Death Valley Shorty was an alleged bum, but Death Valley Curley was a hero. In separating the identities of Shorty and Curley the writer did not characterize Scotty or Red, except to illustrate how the plethora of similar names caused general confusion. The writer identified a nascent Death Valley culture when he identified four men with that nickname.

The military is rife with nicknames. My father was a Marine Corps fighter pilot. He flew in Korea with 1st Lt. Richard Bell — Bell's nickname was Ding. I can guess why Bell's friends gave him that nickname, and I might be right. But what happens when we have only the nickname? Ding provides no clue to Bell's first name. Likewise, "Snuffy" O'Connor's nickname gives no indication of his given name. He too was a Marine pilot, but his nickname cloaks his real name. "Zoom" Adlon's real name was Leo Charles. His moniker implies that his pilot comrades bestowed it based upon his flying ability, but he also could have been a wiry sprinter or a slow, lumbering fellow.

Hispanic cultures sometimes assign nicknames based upon occupation or physical traits that may or may not characterize the individual. These nicknames often have nothing to do with the given, legal, or sacramental names bestowed by parents or the church. For example, neighbors refer to a former Mexican American teacher's aide in Santa Ana, Calif., as "Maestra" rather than using her name, even though she retired many years ago. One Colombian American friend in Las Vegas calls his wife "Gorda" or "Gordita." Although her husband appears to call her Fat or Fatty, his term of endearment roughly translates to "cute, chubby baby."

Nicknames are a fascinating study in themselves. We err when we dismiss nicknames that do not lead us to given names or surnames. If we pay attention, we can discover important clues that nicknames reveal about the culture and environment in which the person lived.

Stefani Evans is a Board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News 2275 Corporate Circle, Suite 300, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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