Nicknames

“Her name was Magill, and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”
   — “Rocky Raccoon” from The Beatles’ White Album

Irv Lewis Libby is scheduled to go on trial for obstruction of justice and lying under oath to a Grand jury.  It is alleged that he disclosed the name of a CIA operative in order to get back at her husband, a critic of the war in Iraq.  Hopefully this is not the first you are hearing of this and you have sources for news beyond the Hill and Lake Press and this column.  My question is, if this man is being accused of such serious crimes why is every inside the beltway media person referring to him by his nickname?  Do we know another Lewis Libby?  Calling him Scooter creates a false intimacy, and it is a nickname that you almost can’t say without smiling. 

What did that freckle-faced red headed rascal do now, steal an apple pie that Aunt Bea had cooling on the windowsill?  That little miscreant hasn’t been chasing girls again, has he?  Scooter wears a baseball cap that covers his cowlick, and a wide striped T-shirt.  His jeans always have a hole in the knee, and the little scamp would rather be out in the woods with his slingshot than cooped up in school.  Commit a treasonous act that could compromise our intelligence community? Not our Scooter!  If this seems vitriolic I must confess that beneath the partisanship I am jealous not of the man but of the nickname.

Often nicknames are derived from an ascribed status like our family name, heritage or a physical characteristic.  The only nickname I ever had was Cookie, which I objected to because it was too obvious.  Ethnic nicknames– Jimmy The Greek, Dutch, as well as variations off of heritage like The Silent Swede (which may be redundant)– also do not require imagination.  Calling a large person Tiny or a bald one Curly may be paradoxical but it lacks inspiration.

Alas, you cannot really give yourself a nickname.  If you are wealthy enough you can hire a bunch of sycophants to call you Boss Man, Chief or Big Guy, but it is not as sincere as a playground nickname from your childhood.  Nicknames are terms of endearment bestowed either by those close to you or by an insightful outsider in a serendipitous moment.  You can be moving through your life as Harold, Maggie, Clarence, or Jan, and suddenly your love of a certain food, your body type, your hair, or a speech pattern may give you a lifetime handle.  You become Peanuts, Stick, Slick, or Mumbles.  Nicknames are like quicksand: the more you fight them, the more tenacious the hold.

A truly great nickname is a light-hearted yet insightful ironic synthesis, and a peek into the soul of another.  It acknowledges an achieved status.   Dubbing Eric Clapton “Slow Hands” is a loving tribute paid him by his fellow musicians.  It is a way to both gently kid and acknowledge his talent.  As a now middle aged person without a nickname, I fear my biological time clock ticking.  Not being good enough for school sports teams, I missed a real opportunity.  Since then I have left countless hints for my friends as I loudly proclaim my love of ice cream, my fear of rodents, and my interest in reading, but nothing has come of it.   I have met countless people who are less eccentric, quixotic, and colorful than I am who have really cool nicknames like Duke, Stretch, Kikki, Poncho, Slim, Bubba, Sissy, Doc, Buck, Gabby, Candy, Shorty, and Dusty. 

Whether in the workplace, a locker room, or a sewing circle, nickname people are more likely to be remembered.  My parents named me at birth (for my grandfather) and I have been unable to acquire a colorful sobriquet despite decades of trying.  With no nickname, I am outside of the club with my nose pressed against the glass.  Yes I am bitter that this gray flannel middle aged white-guy has a cool nickname.  Lewis “Scooter” Libby is second in command to Vice President Richard “Daddy Warbucks” Cheney, and if convicted, whether he ever serves jail time or is merely sent to his room without dessert, he should be forced to return “Scooter” to its rightful owner, Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto. 

“Scooter” Libby has a chance to become the most infamous nicknamed felon since Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.

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