Sports Nicknames.

Ben Yagoda’s Lingua Franca post Why Don’t Athletes Have Good Nicknames Anymore? covers a subject dear to my heart (my answer to the titular question: because the good nicknames were given by the fans in the cheap seats back when sports were cheap entertainment, but now they’re big business and there are no cheap seats); it’s a funny piece and there are some good nicknames, but I’m really posting it for the final item:

And the best sports nickname of all time. In the 1950s, the Temple University Owls had a star forward named Bill Mlkvy. His brilliant handle? “The Owl Without a Vowel.”

Comments

  1. Mmm, I’m not so sure. A lot of nicknames were sportswriters’ inventions, and I think it has more to do with increasing “professionalism” (read stodginess) in the press.

    I posted “Anthem”, a poem entirely made up of nicknames, to the Chronk site, but it’s in moderation (perhaps because of its length).

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Politically incorrect. Hank (the Hebrew Hammer) Greenberg.

    There are sports clubs named after the Maccabees, though.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    Depends on the sport, I guess?

    Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, formerly of Zenit, is so well known by the nickname Hulk that many fans probably don’t even know what his real name is.

    Harry Kane, of Tottenham Hotspur, has probably the most inevitable nickname ever (he’s obviously known as the Hurricane).

    There are sports clubs named after the Maccabees, though.
    Aren’t most of them in Israel?
    (EDIT: apparently there even used to be one in the USA, though it hadn’t existed since 1982.)

  4. I don’t follow other sports that much but in tennis one of the worse tendencies is the desperation shown by the press in coming up with a nickname for every single player, when they haven’t even done anything noteworthy or displayed any identifiable characteristics yet. Nothing as literarily cute as “The Owl Without a Vowel”, but there *are* a couple of current tennis nicknames which have grown organically, thus stuck:

    “Djoker” or “Djokster” for Novak Djokovic, who was, and still is to a degree, known for playfully imitating other players on court to entertain the crowd.

    “FedEx” for the great Roger Federer (when he’s not called “The Maestro”), because he “delivers”, as in consistently manages to satisfy expectations both in terms of winning, and doing that with an enjoyable style of play. Interestingly, over the years as he got older and lost his absolute dominance that meaning has faded a bit, now usually uttered more for his unusually fast service games which he tends to win in around 60 seconds.

    “Stanimal” for Stan Wawrinka (given by Federer, his fellow countryman), who is a player with devastating hitting power, almost impossible to defend against on his inspired days, but a very inconsistent one too where you don’t know which version of him you’re gonna get on a given day: just Stan, or Stanimal? This makes possible various comical uses of the name in sentences (“releasing the stanimal” and such) so people love it. Much better than his “official” nickname printed on his merchandise, Stan the Man, at least.

    My favorite: “Tomic the Tank Engine” for the young Australian Bernard Tomic—a play on the children’s series character Thomas the Tank Engine. Called that because of his fickle nature where he oftentimes “tanks” matches (that is, he deliberately loses by displaying a total lack of effort) when he’s not feeling like it that day, since he’s already worth millions so why bother, in his words.

  5. Mmm, I’m not so sure. A lot of nicknames were sportswriters’ inventions, and I think it has more to do with increasing “professionalism” (read stodginess) in the press.

    I should have mentioned in the post that I was thinking of real nicknames, not the ones invented by sportswriters, which are generally lumbering and not used by anyone else (similarly for the team “nicknames” that sportswriters come up with to avoid repetition, e.g. “Chisox” or “Pale Hose” for the White Sox). To take George Herman Ruth Jr. as an example: “Babe” was a real nickname (used for the great pitcher Babe Adams as well), but “The Great Bambino”, “The Sultan of Swat”, “The Colossus of Clout”, and “The King Of Crash” are all sportswriters’ desperate attempts to amuse and sell papers.

  6. In Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America and Iberia, many players are referred to by forename (Sócrates, Ronaldo), hypocoristic (Ronaldinho, Kaka), or nickname (Pelé, Zico). FIFA allows “popular name” to be used instead of surname on players’ shirts. Javier Hernández was called “Javier Hernández” in England despite having “Chicharito” on his Manchester United shirt.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    I was thinking of this one, but Google has search suggestions for makkabi in several German cities (and “Wilno”).

  8. Ah, Wilno, that long-lost Polish provincial city!

  9. per incuriam says:

    Goran Ivanišević, the Croatian tennis ace famously prone to mood swings was just asking for “The Split Personality”.

    In soccer, Savo Milošević, a notoriously wasteful striker, could have no arguments with “Miss-a-lot-ević”.

  10. “A daily bowl of wrong”! Delightful.

  11. “the desperation shown by the press in coming up with a nickname for every single player” — see also Australian national teams and Gaelic games counties

  12. Richard Hershberger says:

    “I should have mentioned in the post that I was thinking of real nicknames, not the ones invented by sportswriters…”

    I think the issue then is that most real nicknames are pretty uninteresting, tending toward the monosyllabic. Your example of “Babe” Ruth is a good example. It is a real nickname in that it was given to him by his teammates and it stuck, but it really is pretty boring. The name is only memorable because the player is memorable.

    A nineteenth century example is Robert Ferguson. It should come as no surprise that no one in fact called him “Death to Flying Things,” innumerable modern sources notwithstanding. By “no one” I mean that quite literally, if we restrict the discussion to his lifetime. The claim seems to have arisen long after he was dead, with its origin obscure. Ferguson did, however, have a genuine nickname that people actually called him. It was “Bob.”

    The line between genuine teammate-bestowed nickname and journalistic headline fodder is not always clear. The various persons called “Rube” or “Dummy” or “Chief” might go either way. My favorite 19th century ballplayer nickname is almost certainly journalistic, though perhaps picked up by fans in the stands: “Whoop-la” White. His real name was William White, and his real nickname was “Will.” He is best known today either as brother of Hall of Famer James “Deacon” White (speaking of nicknames that might go either say) or as the first professional ballplayer to wear glasses, hence his other nickname of “Specs.”

  13. I think the issue then is that most real nicknames are pretty uninteresting, tending toward the monosyllabic.

    Fair enough, but (as usual) I prefer the boring fact (a real nickname used by real people) to the lively fiction. And both “Deacon” and “Specs” are great nicknames.

  14. Richard Hershberger says:

    “Deacon” was a common nickname, applicable to any notably pious ballplayer. Baseball-reference lists 22 players with this nickname. It is not clear to me that it was meant as a compliment.

    As for sportswriters’ nicknames, they sometimes can be quite creative. More often not, but there is no reason to expect Sturgeon’s Law to not apply here.

    Also worth noting is that almost all of the standard team names for the older clubs started out life as sportswriters’ nicknames: Cubs, Dodgers, etc. This was true into the second half of the 20th century. The Phillies in the 1940s tried to push “Blue Jays” as their official nickname. It didn’t take, and people usually claim that it was purely a newspaper artifact. This claim is not credible when you read articles from the time with the General Manager announcing the new name. Contrast this with the Tampa Bay club. They announced that they were changing their name from the “Devil Rays” to simply the “Rays.” It took people a little while to adjust, but no one questioned this being within the club’s purview.

  15. It is not clear to me that it was meant as a compliment.

    Probably not, but who cares? (Other than the players in question, and they’re all dead.)

    As for sportswriters’ nicknames, they sometimes can be quite creative.

    Sure, and I’m not knocking them as creations, I just happen to downgrade them for their artificiality. But that’s just, like, my opinion.

    Also worth noting is that almost all of the standard team names for the older clubs started out life as sportswriters’ nicknames: Cubs, Dodgers, etc.

    Fair point!

  16. James Kabala says:

    But I think many of the ones listed by Yagoda must be sportswriter inventions. I find it unlikely that a teammate or a fan invented “The Owl Without a Vowel.”

  17. Oh, sure. But that one’s so great it transcends its origin.

  18. Narmitaj says:

    @ mollymooly” “FIFA allows ‘popular name’ to be used instead of surname on players’ shirts” – possibly not official, but I know of a batsman of Indian extraction who plays in the Dales Council league in Yorkshire (my nephew is a team-mate) who is called Bhaven Mistry and whose shirt has a simple “?” printed large on the back.

    Some “nicknames” used by cricket players to refer to each other are pretty unimaginative… England Test players with monosyllabic names like Vaughn, Strauss, Trott and Cook would be called Vaughny, Straussy, Trotty, Cooky and so on in post-match interviews. Inevitably and conversely, I also heard the Australian cricketer Mike Hussey referred to as Huss at least once (though apparently one official nickname is Mr Cricket).

  19. I kind of liked Tour de France winner Miguel “Singing” Indurain, although it was a sportwriter invention for an athlete who didn’t speak English.

  20. Just for completeness’ sake: Thorpedo (Ian Thorp).

  21. Rugbyfoopball gave us Martin Nwokocha ‘Chariots’ Offiah, which makes up for a lot.

  22. James Kabala says:

    Arthur and Squiffy-Marie: The American sportscaster Chris Berman created a seemingly endless list of pun nicknames of this type (e.g., Bernard “Innocent Until Proven” Gilkey):

    http://nesn.com/2010/02/chris-bermans-top-50-sports-nicknames-of-all-time/

    One of these, Fred “The Crime Dog” McGriff (after McGruff the Crime Dog, a cartoon character in anti-drug PSAs), actually caught on as a real nickname.

  23. Richard Hershberger says:

    It belatedly occurs to me that in the extremely unlikely event that Tim Tebow actually makes it in baseball, “Deacon” would be the perfect nickname for him.

  24. Missy “The Missile” Giove, a professional downhill mountain bicyclist.

  25. It belatedly occurs to me that in the extremely unlikely event that Tim Tebow actually makes it in baseball, “Deacon” would be the perfect nickname for him.

    Ooh, excellent! I’m going to start preemptively calling him that.

  26. Jonathan D says:

    Narmitaj, on the subject of nicknames in cricket, or Australian sport in general, it’s quite common for players to be simply called by the first name of an existing celebrity with the same surname. So the “Niiiiiiiiiice, Garrrrry” directed to Nathan Lyon refers to Melbourne footballer Gary Lyon, for example.

    The nicknames seemed more fun when I was younger… In the 80s/90s, there was Steve “Tugga” Waugh, with his younger twin brother briefly getting the name “Afghanistan” (the forgotten Waugh).

  27. Jonathan D: Is that definitely the origin of Mark Waugh’s nickname (bestowed by media and sportswriters, not by fellow team members, presumably)? I’ve blindly assumed that “Afghan Waugh” derived from the fact that M. Waugh’s professional career began in the late 1980s, when the Soviets had long been bogged down in Afghanistan. The “forgotten war” reference is clever, but (snobbery alert!) wouldn’t it be it too abstruse for Aussie sportswriters? And wouldn’t the forgotten one have been Dean Waugh, the Zeppo of the family?

  28. In the U.S. it’s Korea that’s “the forgotten war”, but of course most of us are rhotic, so the pun doesn’t work.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    It doesn’t work for Bernie Sanders either: non-rhotic, but not monophthongized.

  30. /ɔː/ and /ɔːɹ/ both tend to be diphthongal in a New York accent – but from what I gather, the latter usually has a slightly higher onset. An article that I recently came across argued that the two are merged in perception but not in production for New Yorkers.

    Boston has war = [ˈwɔə], Waugh = [ˈwɒː] in younger accents, but [ˈwɒː] for both in older ones.

  31. Remember that non-rhoticity is dying out in NYC. People my age (but not me, I wasn’t born here) have it, but lots of younger folk don’t, always excepting those who speak AAVE.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    That’s fascinating about Boston.

    An article that I recently came across argued that the two are merged in perception but not in production for New Yorkers.

    How would that even work…?

  33. It seems to be a relatively common state of affairs in cases of near merger or transitional merger: there’ll be a subtle, residual distinction present in people’s speech, but it’s so small that they can’t consistently hear it in the speech of others. For me and a lot of speakers, this holds true with /t/~/d/ neutralization: there’s a very subtle length difference between pairs like bitter~bidder and betting~bedding, but in the speech of others I’ll easily mistake the one for the other if context clues don’t suffice.

  34. January First-of-May says:

    How would that even work…?

    I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t, and in fact things like that are why I’m not sure minimal pairs can always distinguish phonemes.

    I’m reminded of my own English idiolect’s distinction between (something along the lines of) interdental [t͡θ] (for the phoneme /θ/) and alveolar [t͡s] (for some instances of soft c – used to be almost universal in some positions, now slowly normalizing – and in a few other similar cases) – I did not realize they were actually distinct in my speech until fairly recently (and I still have trouble hearing the difference).
    The words think and zinc should be a minimal pair, but I apparently have a lot of variance in my pronunciation of the latter; I’m not sure if there is any other minimal pair.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t

    How do people consistently pronounce what they can’t hear?

    (Lazar’s incomplete neutralization isn’t a case of that, so if that’s what was meant, I withdraw all objections.)

    Zinc gets a spelling pronunciation with [z] in English. Why would you affricate think?

  36. there’s a very subtle length difference between pairs like bitter~bidder and betting~bedding

    The difference is in the length of the preceding vowel. English vowels are phonetically longer before voiced consonants than they are before voiceless ones. In normal American speech, the consonants are both voiced, but the preceding vowel still is short if the voiced intervocalic D is historically voiceless.

  37. January First-of-May says:

    Why would you affricate think?

    Because I’m not entirely sure that whatever the triangular heck I pronounce in place of /θ/ (it’s not only this word) is actually [θ].
    I know it’s not [t͡s] (because, as mentioned, I have actual [t͡s] in some “soft c” positions, where I can be fairly sure it’s [t͡s] because it (usually) comes from the Russian, and I know my tongue is doing different things), and I know it’s pretty similar (because I have trouble hearing the difference), so my best guess is [t͡θ] (or something not unlike it – note the term “interdental”).

    Apparently (actual) English dialects have a big variety of pronunciations and allophones of /θ/, and I suspect I probably accidentally picked up one of those (perhaps the American).
    I wasn’t able to find any pronunciation guides, however (I almost thought I found one, but it turned out to be an expired Vocaroo recording), so I’m not sure how to describe it in any proper way.

  38. Jonathan D says:

    Ian: I’m sure the brother most deserving of the “forgotten” tag was Daniel. Just as you’ve left him out, when the “Afghanistan” name was used, Dean was even thought of, while Mark, being the same age as Steve and having shown similar promise, was ignored while Steve was regularly playing for Australia. By the time they were both fixtures at the top level, he was more commonly called by the less interesting “Junior”.

    As for being too abstruse for Aussie sportswriters, there are cricket writers and there are cricket writers. Peter Roebuck seems to claim the credit for it, and it certainly feels like something he would write.

  39. “The words think and zinc should be a minimal pair, but I apparently have a lot of variance in my pronunciation of the latter; I’m not sure if there is any other minimal pair.”

    This page lists 73 /Ɵ/ versus /z/ minimal pairs, which may include others of your type. (It’s RP so includes pairs like “bath” vs “bars” that are far from minimal in other accents.)

    Irish accents’ realisation of /Ɵ/ can be [Ɵ] , [t͡θ] , [t̪] , or [t] ; only the last merges with /t/ as in the proverbial “tirty tree and a turd”, though [t̪] may be misinterpreted as /t/ by foreigners. Similarly for /ð/.

  40. January First-of-May says:

    It’s not as obvious – zinc is exceptional (due to its etymology), and most of the time my pronunciation of /z/ is something sufficiently close to [z].

    That said, thanks for the list – I checked their examples of /θ/ versus /s/ minimal pairs, and found one that would probably work in my idiolect: cymbal and thimble (the reason I didn’t think of it before is partly the second syllables, which are indeed close enough to identical but don’t look that way from the spelling, and partly because cymbal – even in the, apparently more common, plural – is such a rare word).

  41. [t̪] may be misinterpreted as /t/

    Well, sure, since /t/ is an alveolar stop everywhere else, and a dental stop is featured only in L2 accents. This is one of those cases where language shift has converted an L2 accent of English into a permanent L1 accent in English.

    The minimal-pairs website (main page) is a really fascinating resource. The numbers in the upper half are the number of minimal pairs, whereas the numbers in the lower half are a measure of similarity between the phonemes; you can click on either for the actual lists. It’s interesting that the highest numbers of pairs are found for /d~z/ and /t~s/, since the vast majority of regular verbs generate one or the other using the inflections -ed, -s. The verbs that don’t often generate a /d~ŋ/ pair instead, at least in the lists, though I myself have unreduced /ɪ/ in -ing.

  42. “Also worth noting is that almost all of the standard team names for the older clubs started out life as sportswriters’ nicknames: Cubs, Dodgers, etc.”

    That is interesting, because pretty much every professional football team in the UK has a nickname – the Red Devils, the Gunners, the ‘Gers, etc – but not one of the nicknames, as far as I know, has been elevated to official status, so we’re left with rather uninteresting names like the Liverpool team being called “Liverpool”, etc.

    There’s one of Martin Cruz Smith’s novels where the protagonist muses on how intimidatingly energetic Soviet football team names are – Dynamo Kiev! Spartak! – and wonders if there are lower-class teams called things like Moscow Torpor and Kiev Inertia.

  43. January First-of-May says:

    There’s one of Martin Cruz Smith’s novels where the protagonist muses on how intimidatingly energetic Soviet football team names are – Dynamo Kiev! Spartak! – and wonders if there are lower-class teams called things like Moscow Torpor and Kiev Inertia.

    He would have probably loved Vladivostok Luch-Energiya (i.e. Ray-Energy), which sounds like it came out of a science-fiction story.

    That is interesting, because pretty much every professional football team in the UK has a nickname – the Red Devils, the Gunners, the ‘Gers, etc – but not one of the nicknames, as far as I know, has been elevated to official status, so we’re left with rather uninteresting names like the Liverpool team being called “Liverpool”, etc.

    “Mancunians” for Manchester United is fairly official, I think (though perhaps not in UK writing).
    I think “Wolves” for Wolverhampton is also close, and Sheffield Wednesday kind of already has a nickname but it’s such an inconvenient one that IIRC it’s called something else even unofficially.

  44. The Nippon Ham Fighters had a terrific name but they’ve watered it down to the current Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, which removes the delightful image of fighting ham.

  45. “Mancunians” for Manchester United is fairly official, I think (though perhaps not in UK writing).

    Mancunians just means “people from Manchester”, though. It’s not official in that the actual name of the Chicago Cubs is “the Chicago Cubs”. It’s on their letterhead. The actual name of the Manchester football team is not “the Mancunians”, it’s Manchester United.

    Though I would support them renaming themselves, on US lines, as “The Manchester Mancunians”. Welcome to Tautology Club! (The first rule of Tautology Club is the first rule of Tautology Club.)

    There are a few sports teams which sound oxymoronic – the London Irish, the London Scottish – but these are generally expat teams and/or based on expat regiments. They’re also rugby teams, which tend to be a bit more imaginative with their names: Harlequins, Barbarians, Ealing Trailfinders, Rotherham Titans etc.

  46. Yes, the Manchester Mancunians would fit in just fine with the Los Angeles Angels.

  47. “not one of the nicknames, as far as I know, has been elevated to official status”

    Sunderland used to be “the Rokerites”; when they left Roker Park in 1997 for a new stadium they had an official fan poll on a new nickname (“the Black Cats”).

    Manchester United’s crest was changed in 1970 to include a red devil, in honour of their pre-existing nickname.

  48. Sir JCass says:

    The German Formula One driver Timo Glock, who raced for the Irish team Jordan, was renamed Tim O’Glock by his pit crew.

  49. Trond Engen says:

    not one of the nicknames, as far as I know, has been elevated to official status

    Wolves for Wolverhampton and Spurs for Tottenham Hotspur are at least fairly close, probably because they also serve as handy abbreviations.

    Some were born with a nickname. Queens Park Rangers, Glasgow Rangers, Bristol Rovers, but somehow that doesn’t seem to do the trick with the fans. I can think of one exception: When Wimbledon FC were moved out to Milton Keynes they tried to lure the fans with them by elevating the nickname to official status: They are now the MK Dons FC, and still the Dons. Though one might argue that they no longer have any fans.

  50. Happy Birthday, “Old Aches and Pains”!

  51. A great nickname for a great player.

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