What's in a name?

Chris Loftus is a redneck. For a while, he ran a farm on River Road in Rhinebeck, New York. Like a lot of rednecks, he pays attention to his surroundings while maintaining a constant stream of verbal abuse. Unlike a lot of other rednecks, he is really good at making up nicknames and vulgar stories about whoever happens to be standing within earshot. Do I need to mention that he was my boss, and had a habit of making up new nicknames for me on a daily basis?

Even though he was perfectly capable of saying Papadopoulos, he preferred nouns and adjectives mixed with (of course) expletives. He called me Pintetop, then Pinhead, then Pinehead, Pinehair, Pinecone and Pineapple, then Wildhair, Harebrain and Wingnut. One day in the summer of 1986 he handed me a hay fork and said "Here, Pitchfork, take this and go clean out the stable". I did, and somehow the name stuck. Maybe it was because my next task was to disperse that which I had just collected. Perhaps he couldn't think of anything alliterative for 'manure spreader'.

Chris didn't have a nickname, but he does have a younger brother. Herc. As in Hercules. While Chris is built like the broad side of a barn, at about six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds, Herc is about the same height but nowhere near as massive. In other words, he's a runt. Which is why he got tagged with the name Hercules. One of the scrawniest, most wiry people you'd ever meet, Herc reminds me of the locust trees we cut for fenceposts. Tall, mostly straight, and impervious to things like nails, vehicles, and weather. In other words, much stronger than he appears to be. Which is why the name stuck. Summing it up with a quiet sort of humor, Herc said "appearances can be deceiving".

Back to the main story. Both Herc and Chris are good at making up obscene limericks about the guys they work with. Which on most occasions was me. Once in a while there was a guy named Skippy. But Skippy is another story, and we've already got enough things to tend to here. Herc made up a limerick about me that started with "There once was a guy named Dave, who kept a dead whore in a cave," and ended with something involving necrophilia.

Herc liked this one a lot. He'd recite it in front of other people if he thought it would cause me embarrassment or annoyment. Sometimes it did. But the game was to remain nonplussed. Responding in kind didn't faze him at all. It didn't work as a deterrent. He didn't bat an eye when, using his nickname, I made up the most graphically obscene rhyme I could think of. He wasn't embarrassed. But I did succeed at annoying him - once - when I asked him if he knew the difference between an asshole and a jarhead. Jarhead is slang referring to someone in the US Marine Corps.

"Asshole comes first in the dictionary", I said. "You better watch your asshole, asshole" he said. See, Herc had been in the Marines. He was very proud of that. He didn't like disparaging  or disrespectful remarks about this august institution. It was a sure way to get under his skin. I never bothered to find out just how far I could take it. I let it slide, and I think he knew and respected the limits of decency.

So what was the nicknaming and rhyming about? I never had the impression that Chris and Herc were trying to put me in my place, because they didn't overreact when I turned it on them. It wasn't as though they were out to intimidate and establish some kind of power hierarchy. In other places and with other people, I've seen ritual humiliation disguised as humour employed to establish and maintain a social hierarchy. It serves to intimidate, and perhaps, in a Machiavellian way, maintains order through fear of reprisals. Superiors make cutting remarks to and about underlings. This has most often been the case in academic and white-collar circles. I'm not sure why. But this wasn't the case with the Loftus brothers. If they'd wanted to intimidate, taking a belligerent pose would have been adequate. Physical intimidation works. No subtleties necessary. This means the banter was about play, not power. Retorts were not met with reprisals; responding in kind was pretty much expected. So nicknames are about play? Well, maybe.

My name is Pitchfork, I live in New York, I work in the underbrush there. When I walk down the street, the people I meet, say why are those sticks in your hair? And I say ....

Wild Bill Hickok was the nickname of James Butler Hickok.

But it wasn't always that way.

James Butler Hickok was born near Homer, now Troy Grove, Illinois, in 1837. He worked on a farm until age eighteen. He wandered around the Midwest doing various jobs until 1858 when he became a driver for the Overland Stage Company. In 1860, he was sent to work at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska Territory (six miles east of present day Fairbury). Jim Hickok was known by ranchers and farmers as "Duck Bill Hickok" because of his thin protruding lips which he later hid by growing a long mustache. The name stuck with him until Col. George Ward Nichols wrote about "Wild Bill Hickok" in Harper's Magazine if February of 1867. The article featured a somewhat glamorized story of Hickoks killing of David Colbert McCanles at Rock Creek Station. This story created a legend from an unknown ordinary pioneer.

(Source: http://www.neupc.org/hickok.html)

Duck Bill Hickok.

Not the kind of nickname that frontier mythology revolved around. Nor is it just redneck farmers being funny. Something else is going on. I think there are idioms of naming, and the American version has produced some really wonderful examples of colourful and thought-provoking names. At first glance, it seems that there are three major strands in this culture of naming. In the first instance, the naming conventions of Native American societies may have set a precedent, or presented a viable alternative to the largely European conventions of colonisers. In the second instance, weird and wonderful stage names have developed as part of popular culture, from performers to sports figures. Thirdly, a popular culture of nicknames has developed in relation to class, ethnicity and region.

 "I had this friend up in Berkeley, Steve Talbot, and he came up with funny names for people," explains Jorma. "His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, 'You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!'" (Jorma Kaukonen, 2002)

I had to have something to go with Pitchfork. Four syllables was good. Lots of nicknames with four syllables: Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart, Zoot Horn Rollo. Wild Bill Hickok. And the way I see things, an incongruous juxtaposition is even better. Sets things askew, makes one consider the contributing elements. But how to derive the constituents? Wild Bill Hickok rhymes with Wild Blue Yonder. Hickok rhymes with Pitchfork. Wild Blue/Pitchfork sets up some weird juxtaposition based on a familiar rhythm. It works. It stays.

 

 

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