On a recent trip to Orlando I saw a comment by Sam Roberts, son of former Guyana Police Chief “Skip” Roberts, on the widespread Caribbean practice of pinning nicknames on people, especially males, and he noted the almost amiable nature of the practice in that, most of the time, nobody takes offence to the monikers even when they could be seen as disparaging. Sam’s comment is apt. For some reason, nicknames in the Caribbean, even when they morph into some of the most degrading terms, particularly the ones aimed at men, do not cause even a ripple – the names are used in a teasing or jocular way and are accepted by user and recipient alike in a circle of friends or acquaintances. Indeed, in Guyana, these terms are often referred to as “fond names” carrying the message that, derogatory as they may sound, they are used almost as an embrace and applied, generally, by friends to friends.
Usually, a nickname is based on some reality, some truth, so that the late Jack Henry, one of my early Vreed-en-Hoop pals, had become labeled in our inner circle of five as “Fowl Thief”: at a feedup for me on my birthday, the chicken in the curry, had been supplied by Jack, from his father’s own pen, without his father’s knowledge. It is true, however, that nicknames can sometimes go over the edge – “Bound Fuh Drunk” for example – so that I was taken aback in my time at Saints to learn that one of our classmates was being referred to as “Diggy Nose” for fairly obvious reasons, although I don’t recall anyone ever using the term to the fellow’s face – or nose. However, Sam’s point is generally true that the practice is accepted with good humour on both sides.
Guyana had a champion cyclist when I was growing up here who was generally referred to as “Duck Eggs”. I don’t want to swear that he was so referred to in the press reports of a race, but I would not be surprised to hear that such was the case.
Indeed, in the course of writing this, I called a friend to find out the cyclist’s real name, and we both ended up laughing – neither of us could remember it; all we knew was “Duck Eggs.” Following some more telephoning, I found someone who remembered the gentleman’s name was Maurice Fernandes – how pale compared to “Duck Eggs” that is; I could see how Maurice would prefer it.
Many years ago, when I was living in Cayman, there was a popular Sean Connery film named “Pussy Galore” named after one of the characters in the film. In Cayman, at the time, there was a flamboyant lady from a respected family in the community who, I was stunned to learn, had been given the same name as the movie, and I had to assume it wasn’t because of her acting ability. In the nickname tradition, the lady herself didn’t seem fazed at all by the label. When I got to know her (not in the Biblical sense, mind you) I asked her one time how she reacted to it. She told me with a shy laugh: “It’s okay; they don’t mean anything by it.”
The acceptance is such that, as in the Duck Eggs example, many times in our circle of acquaintances and relatives we will know a person by his nickname and only by his nickname. A contractor here recently told me of a workman named “Shaky”, along with the guy’s contact number, and when I asked for his real name, I got, “I only know him as Shaky.” Not only that: when I called the number the person answering the phone simply said, “Hold on.” I could hear him shouting, “Tell Shaky, phone call.” It doesn’t end there: eventually someone picked up the phone and said, “Hello. Shaky here.”
In my Tradewinds time in Toronto, there was a Guyanese patron of our nightclub whom I knew only as “Big Os”. Small of stature, but reportedly well endowed in one respect, there is a story – I heard it from Big Os himself – that when he showed up around the “working girls”, or, as they are known these days, “sex workers”, he would be greeted with a chorus of, “Na, na, na. Not me an’ he.”
I was also witness to an episode at Hague that led to the creation of a nickname. It involves an Indian cane-cutter, very fond of the booze. He was riding his bicycle one day going west; I was going east. To his right there was a very wide sloping parapet leading to a “four-foot” trench below. In his inebriation, the gentleman’s front wheel veered onto the parapet and he started downwards.
I was looking for him to dismount or at least pull brakes, but he was so full of booze he simply kept on pedaling downhill, fully upright, showing no concern whatsoever, gathering speed as he went. He hit the trench, which was half full of water, and I remember him standing up, arms akimbo, and looking around as if to say, “How the hell did I get here?” I don’t have to tell you where this tale is going; overnight he became known as “Four Foot”. In this case, however, anyone calling him by that name would get a string of purple profanity in response.
Sometimes, though, there is a simply comical aspect to the thing as in the case of the Pouderoyen man who introduced himself to me many years ago with, “My name is John, but dey does call me John-John fuh short.”
Given their often critical wording, the salient aspect of nicknames is how they are somehow seen as benign, or in some cases complimentary, by both user and recipient. There is usually a light-heartedness or even friendliness both in the nature of the names and in how and when they are used, to the extent that even racially-loaded terms will pass between friends without causing a ripple. If you find some of the names offensive, get used to it; it’s a benign part of Caribbean culture. So it go.