Life

The Hidden History of Men Giving Each Other Stupid Nicknames

Plank. Bus wanker. Chicken legs. Golden Balls. The names go on.
June 26, 2020, 8:00am
Inbetweeners Bus Wanker
Photo by Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo
Why, Bro? is a semi-regular series where we look at the reasons why men do the things they do.

What’s the issue: Nicknames. Men giving each other alternative names that are so cryptic and dumb it is impossible to figure out who someone is or have an untainted impression of them.

Take where I grew up, Carmarthenshire in West Wales. Here, men are called things like Tiger, Spud, Flid, Bond, Dai Milk, Doug (real name Kieran) and Chicken Legs. My name is Rhys, but my friends (and most of those who I’m introduced to) call me Plank. They also called me Plank when they shouldn’t – in front of teachers, parents, prospective weekend job employers. Would you let Plank babysit? Me neither, so yeah, nicknames – that’s the issue.

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The word nickname comes from the Middle English term "ekename", meaning "an additional name". Thomas, 23, created his friend’s nickname. “I have a mate called Randal who was one of the boys without a nickname. Four years ago he was wishing for a nickname on the group chat, so where it says ‘Set Nickname’, I wrote ‘Set Nickname’ for him – and we’ve called him ‘Nickname’ since. He hates it, so naturally we haven’t stopped.”

How long has it been going on for: In terms of being called Plank? Since I was 12. However the phenomenon of calling men stupid names has been around far longer than us, since records began. Ages. In the Domesday book (a survey mainly listing taxes which had been owed in 1086) there was a guy called Roger "Fuckebythenavele" (fun fact: it’s the first recorded use of "fuck" in the English language), and in a Winchester equivalent from 1057, there’s a Roger "Gyldenballokes" (golden bollocks). Sadly, there’s no record of why these names were given to the Roger lads, but the nicknames must have been pretty established identity markers to be written in official documents. “There’s also people called ‘Beard’ and ‘Peacock’ from that time,” says Dr Rebecca Gregory, a specialist in the origins of names.

Where does it happen? Well, socially. It happens everywhere. In the pub, at shops, on the football pitch, in a text. Walking down a street you’ll often hear something like "Sniffer, pal!" bellowed (Cardiff, 2018) to the dismay of absolutely everyone around. Actually, on that, it happens so casually that it escapes social considerations. It therefore frequently occurs where you really don’t want it to. Mid-date at some nice restaurant on the edge of town when you forget your mate works once every 25 years. “Hell Plank, posh date this? How’s it going!” There’s never a second date despite the mates-rates, on-the-house amuse bouche and bottle of Prosecco.

In celebrity culture, there are loads of nicknames. Sport has the majority. "Air" Jordan and "Magic" Johnson are well-known. More obscure ones include skater Shaun White "The Flying Tomato", and David Beckham "Golden Balls" (not far off old Roger’s, actually). In music, Sting got his nickname from wearing a yellow and black striped jumper. Former French President Charles de Gaulle was known as "The Great Asparagus" on the account of his physique.

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Ok, but why? Dennis Relojo-Howell, founder of psychology website Psychreg, says: “Having a silly nickname is a sign that you belong to an in-group. Nicknames also have the ability to strengthen bonds among all-men groups, and can confer status and popularity.”

Dr Gregory agrees: “It's about a sense of belonging, being part of a community means having a nickname. That's something we see from the medieval period onwards.”

This seems fairly reasonable. If many people have the same name, it’s necessary for differentiation (my friend is called Ryan but known as Dev, because he’s from Devon and we have another Ryan in that group). But a community isn’t just geographic. It can be a very select group within a team, or a classroom, and even online where a Twitter name sticks.

“This is a generalisation, but young men tend to play more sports than women, and historically women have been excluded from playing sports, so there's more often a team mentality among the things all-male groups do,” Dr Gregoory adds, before also saying: “I also think of boarding school. Historically, boys had the freedom to go off and find themselves and learn, and come back with stupid nicknames.”

Other reasons for "why" include physical appearance (Hugh Jackman used to be called "Sticks" because he was skinny) or a personality trait. Sometimes it’s adopted from a middle name or a surname, as is often seen in football, and the cryptic ones are usually created in very specific events and given by close friends.

Generally, it’s these circumstantial nicknames that tend to be exclusive to men, and as they are often formed within an all-male environment, where bravado and the necessity to say something more vulgar than what came before is the ultimate social currency. They’re consequently the dumber names. It’s also worth remembering that a nickname is given to someone (unless you just come out deciding to call yourself something and hope it lands, which… behave?). This means that often, the person hasn't got much say in what others call them, nor what they’ll become known as. A quick look online will pull up some examples. Apparently one guy ended up being nicknamed "Bucket", because he once stepped in one.

Here it’s worth pointing out that men, especially in formative years, are less empathetic than women. So they won't stop calling you something just because you've asked them to, especially in front of people they know you don’t want to hear your nickname. Men will also go in harder on a nickname, because giving a term of endearment to another bro simply does not happen. All of these factors mean the nickname is more likely to stick. It’s both acceptance and mockery.

Dr Gregory mentions the same idea in our conversation. “I think it's a Western masculinity thing – a close group of male friends won't generally give nice and affectionate nicknames.”

This isn’t to say women don’t have nicknames, as they frequently do. It’s just they seem to be more sensible. One reason is that in the English language women generally have longer names than men. Consequently, it’s pretty easy and logical to just shorten the given name. Often female names end in an "ie" or "y" sound, so Elizabeth becomes Lizzy, Liz or Betty. Another reason is that historically, men have gotten away with being idiots far more easily, and still do today.

@_RhysThomas_