My 9-year-old daughter held my cell phone to her ear and spoke to her 18-year-old brother. “Brother.” She’s always called him that. And he bestowed “Pig” on her in the hospital right after she was born. “She looks like a pink piglet.” Even though I gave them fine, Christian names, I don’t complain. These nicknames speak of familiarity and affection. But more than that, they connect us to our roots. Southern roots.
Nothing indicates that a person is from the South more than a nickname. My family is full of them. Edith was called Aunt Sol. Evelyn was Aunt Abby. John was Uncle Bud. My grandmother was Margaret, but her nieces and nephews called her Aunt Pay; at work, she was Goodie; and I called her Muzzie. My mother, Margaret Ann, is both Peggy and Little Cousin.
True, nicknames are used everywhere and always have been. The 1950s in the U.S. were an especially golden age for nicknames. Remember the show Happy Days set in that era? If so, you know Fonzie, Richie, Joanie, Potsie, and Ralph the Mouth (who somehow missed out on the ubiquitous “ie” ending). The Andy Griffith Show, filmed in the Fifties and set in North Carolina, gave us Goober, Gomer, Aunt Bee, and little Opie (who would grow up to be Richie on that other show).
And of course we love giving nicknames to our celebrities: from Ol’ Blue Eyes to the Biebs, from the Duke to JT, from the Bambino to Johnny Football, from the Queen of Soul to JLo. Social media has spawned a whole rash of new monikers. There are even websites that provide lists of cool nicknames for your on-line identity.
But in the South, nicknames are never trendy. There is a reverence, a sacredness about them. The silliest of sounding nicknames will be said with the straightest of faces. Grown, dignified men will answer to them. George Ervin Perdue III, recent governor of Georgia, answered to Sonny. Alabamians sent “Big Jim” Folsom twice to the Governor’s Mansion. Ralph “Shug” Jordan, born in Selma Alabama, led the Auburn Tigers to a 1957 National Championship, and a man known as Paul “Bear” Bryant had a little bit of success up the road in Tuscaloosa.
Southern literature, sacred only behind the Bible, gives us characters memorable as much for their names as their exploits. Eudora Welty created Teacake Magee in The Ponder Heart. Harper Lee introduced us to Boo, Jem, Dill, and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Fannie (Patricia) Flagg, a Birmingham girl, presented Idgie (Imogene) in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Tennessee Williams contributed not only Maggie the Cat, but himself, a man born Thomas who legally changed his name to his nickname; a misnomer because he was born in Mississippi.
Yes, whether sensical or not, Southern nicknames have abounded. Catfish, Cooter, Pork Chop, Skeeter, Peanut, Speck, Peaches, Kitty, Tootsie, Dimples, Zip. I feared, however, that the tradition was dying. Though children love to bestow nicknames, it seems the current, strict anti-bullying rules in our schools have squashed not only unkind monikers, but nicknames of any kind. But then my Mama recounted a conversation she had with a friend at church. The woman mentioned that her granddaughter, a high school freshman, calls her 17-year-old brother Bubba.
I love that my children will always be Brother and Pig.
May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton