I suppose all of us, at least when we are adolescents, dream of making some big mark upon the world. We imagine our names passing down through history, recognized by generations yet unborn.
It’s a nice dream, and not really impossible. Provided, of course, that we manage to avoid one of the hidden pitfalls of life: nicknames.
Whatever your real name happens to be, acquire a nickname and you will live with it forevermore. This can be uncomfortable, perhaps, but not fatal if you happen to be nicely anonymous as far as history is concerned.
Okay, so since high school you have been known as “Shorty” or “Red,” or something worse you’d rather forget. A cross to bear, but happily lost as soon as you’re gone. Nicknames rarely make it to tombstones, and never the really bad ones.
But suppose you fulfill that adolescent dream and become famous. Then those unwelcome tags will dog you right through human memory.
Of course, you might be lucky, like Frederick Barbarossa (Red-beard), St. Maurice Matamoros (Moor-killer), or Thorfinn Hausakljúfr (Skull-splitter) and end up with something fairly mellifluous and perhaps even impressive when translated.
Or not so impressive. The illegitimate William the Conqueror, in an age that didn’t mince words, was known by his own troops as Guillaume le Bâtard or “William the Bastard.” Today, that sounds like a rude editorial comment. In his day, it was a simple statement of fact.
Nicknames are humanity’s mnemonic tools. If you have trouble distinguishing between Charles I, Charles II, and Charles III of every-bloody-country or among all those king Henrys that spatter the books, take heart. That’s textbook stuff. That wasn’t the way they were known in their own days. Instead, they were often known by nicknames, some flattering, some not. For instance, Louis II of Aquitaine (The Stammerer) was the son of Charles II (The Bald) and father of Charles III (The Simple).
The last is not too complimentary to our ears, but consider the fate of the mighty Viking chieftain Ragnar Lodbrok. A genuinely heroic figure who ended up being thrown into a snake pit for trying to take the Danish throne, his modern fate is to delight schoolchildren with his sartorial nickname. “Lodbrok” translates as Hairybreeches
It’s not even all that easy to predict which nickname you’ll be remembered by. Many figures have more than one. A notorious Chinese warlord named Zhang Zongchang probably didn’t mind being known as “Old 86.” It seems his male member was reputed to be the size of a stack of 86 Chinese dollars. Unfortunately, Chinese history chooses to remember him as by his other nickname, Gourou, “Dogmeat.”
Winfield Scott, a pompous giant of a man who victoriously commanded in three American wars (1812, Mexican, and the beginning of the Civil War), was known to his troops, and therefore to us, as “Old Fuss and Feathers,” which wouldn’t have pleased him. At that, he did better than rebel general John Bell Hood, whose men called him “Old Wooden Head.”
Still, they were more fortunate than Queen Joan of Spain. She was the first queen to reign over both Castile and Aragon, beginning the process that evolved into a unified, modern Spain. But, blessed with an unstable temperament and ambitious relatives, she was locked up and is remembered as Juana la Loca or “Crazy Joan.”
Perhaps the ladies were fortunate that history tends to be written around the deeds and misdeeds of men. Some of the royal sobriquets are pretty rough. Byzantine emperor Konstantinos V was called Kopronymos, “Shit-for-a-name.” Of course, that is marginally more polite that what the Irish called James II. James deserted his Irish followers after the Battle of the Boyne and fled to France. With customary Irish understatement, James became known simply as Séamus an Chaca, “James the Shit.”
But then an outwardly inoffensive name can acquire baggage, too. As a boy, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus followed his father into the field, where the soldiers adopted him as their little warrior. He even had a miniature uniform made, complete with real soldiers’ boots. So he acquired the nickname we all know him by, Caligula (Little Boot).
The ladies also are not subject to what seems everyone’s favorite way of damning a weak male ruler. Henry IV of Castile went down into the Spanish history books as Enrique el Impotente, with the double meaning clear enough. John I of England of Robin Hood fame was dubbed by the barons as John Lackland, a damning curse to the gentry. But he was popularly known as John Softsword, which suited the common taste rather better.
When the Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell, suddenly died, he left his succession a bit undefined. His son, Richard, became the designated Protector and ruled with such competence that he lasted just over eight months. The chaos that ensued led to the Restoration of the Stuarts, for which many never forgave him. In a nice bit of phallic wordplay, he comes down to us as Tumble-Down Dick.
Since the Victorian Era, we’ve grown a bit more polite with nicknames and they’ve lost a bit of their power to shape history. Just the same, they still have the power to stick to us like Super Glue and make us miserable.
So I have a piece of advice for expectant parents (and grandparents who get kibitzing rights). When you are choosing names, filter them by putting yourself in the mind-set of a nasty little kid in school. Try to imagine all the cruel rhymes, puns, and word play possible for each candidate name.
And do a good job. You’re not just protecting your children. You’re protecting the people who someday will be picking your nursing home.