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Chicago Tribune January 1, 2006

Doing a heckuva job with nicknames

By Mark Jacob
the Tribune's foreign/national news editor

"Deep Throat" was exposed, "God's Rottweiler" became pope, and Joey "the Clown" Lombardo went on the lam.

It was the year of the nickname.

Even the signature quote of 2005--"Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job"--included a nickname.

Such fanciful monikers are a sign of a healthy civilization that views people as fascinating characters, not just as census statistics. Totalitarian societies have lousy nicknames--"Dear Leader" for North Korea's Kim Jong Il or "Genius of the Carpathians" for Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu. Free and creative societies come up with handles such as "The Velvet Fog" for Mel Torme, "Jack the Dripper" for Jackson Pollock and "Dr. Doubleface" for Benjamin Franklin.

In 2005, a single celebrity event demonstrated America's ethos of nicknaming. Rap impresario Sean Combs, who had changed his nickname from "Puff Daddy" to "P. Diddy" about four years earlier, announced in August that he was punting the "P.," becoming simply "Diddy."

Combs said he took such drastic action because his admirers didn't know whether to shout "P. Diddy" or just "Diddy" at him. "I felt like the `P.' was getting between me and my fans, and now we're closer," he told NBC.

What better example could there be of Americans' constant striving for innovation?

Well, maybe there's one better: George W. Bush, the nicknamingest president in U.S. history.

Our chief exec refers to Russian President Vladimir Putin as "Pootie-Poot." He labels New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd "Cobra." Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is "Sabertooth."

Oddly enough, only a few dull nicknames have stuck to Bush himself: "Dubya" (for his middle initial) and "43" (because he's the 43rd president).

But Bush's backers -- especially those who got into hot water in 2005--have plenty of aliases. Convicted Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) is "Duke," indicted White House aide Lewis Libby is "Scooter," and indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is both "The Hammer" and "The Exterminator." Under investigation but uncharged is the league leader in nicknames, White House aide Karl Rove, a.k.a. "Bush's Brain," "The Architect," "The Boy Genius" and "Turd Blossom."

The "Brownie" who allegedly did a heckuva job is Michael Brown, who was dumped as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina. Brown may well have earned another nickname when it was revealed that, in the midst of the Katrina crisis, he was sending lighthearted e-mails about his attire, such as: "I am a fashion god."

Two of Bush's Supreme Court nominees in 2005 also were blessed with fanciful appellations. Judge Samuel Alito is called "Scalito" because he reminds people of Justice Antonin Scalia. Failed nominee Harriet Miers is "The Pit Bull in Size 6 Shoes." The new chief justice, John Roberts Jr., was so snagless at his hearings that senators couldn't elicit a controversial thought, much less a nickname. Slate.com took suggestions from readers, who called Roberts "Roeminator," "Hoosier Daddy" and "Tort Blossom."

In other legal news, Martha Stewart got out of prison and revealed that her nickname in stir had been "M. Diddy."

Joey Lombardo wasn't taking any chances of going to prison when the feds indicted a trunkload of suspected mobsters in April. "The Clown" disappeared, but there were no indications that he ran away to join the circus.

Televangelist Pat Robertson got a mob-style nickname, "The Hit Man," because he suggested that the U.S. should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez--after finding a loophole in the 6th Commandment, presumably. Another controversial religious leader, Joseph Ratzinger, a German described as "The Panzer Cardinal" and "God's Rottweiler," became Pope Benedict XVI.

The big nickname trend for celebrities was name-splicing: "TomKat" for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and "Brangelina" for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. What a shame this gimmick wasn't around in the olden days so that the culture could have enjoyed "Lizard" (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), "Loko" (John Lennon and Yoko Ono), "B-Rude" (Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein), "Fridiego" (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera), "S'Moore" (Susan Anton and Dudley Moore) and "Royale" (Roy Rogers and Dale Evans).

The world of sports, which was once the Florence of the art of nicknaming, was disappointing in 2005. Gone are the days of Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson and Harold "Red" Grange, also known as "The Galloping Ghost."

Our world champion White Sox never embraced a special team nickname, and few players got pet names. Scott "Scotty Pods" Podsednik roamed left field. "Gooch" was the Americanized abbreviation for Tadahito Iguchi. And after Carl Everett denied that dinosaurs ever roamed Earth, a sportswriter labeled him "Jurassic Carl." After the season, the team said goodbye to its star sobriquet: "The Big Hurt," Frank Thomas.

The NCAA went on a nickname purge in 2005, imposing a postseason ban on "hostile and abusive" team names based on "racial/ethnic/national origin." The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign can call itself the Fighting Illini, but Chief Illiniwek is off the reservation. Bradley University in Peoria is fighting to keep the nickname Braves.

By this stage of our civilization, sports should have replaced war as an outlet for human aggression, but it hasn't. The war in Iraq was also disappointing as a generator of nicknames, producing no overarching phrase, such as "The Mother of All Battles."

Instead, we've been numbed by soulless acronyms such as WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and IED (improvised explosive device). The old-time "chow hall" is now known as a DFAC (dining facility), according to GlobalSecurity.org.

Iraqis and Americans have managed to conjure up a nickname or two for each other. The Iraqis are called "hajis," and the Americans are called "ilouj."

Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi mis-information minister known as "Comical Ali," predicted in 2003 that the invading Americans would become "ilouj"--slaves in permanent servitude. According to the London Daily Telegraph, that word is used by Iraqis even today as a dark-humor description of the U.S. soldiers who have occupied their country for 33 months.

In Arabic, "haji" is a term of respect for someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, but some U.S. soldiers use it as a slur for Iraqis. There's unconfirmed speculation that the nickname derives not from the Arabic term but from the old television show "Jonny Quest," which featured Jonny's sidekick, the turban-wearing Hadji.

In 2005, Congress caught plenty of flak over U.S. military policies. After Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) compared Islamic prisoners at Guantanamo to the victims of the Nazis, critics labeled him "Senator Turban." When Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) urged a pullout from Iraq, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) hinted that he was a coward, solidifying her own nickname of "Mean Jean."

Also causing a buzz in Washington in 2005 was the revelation that former No. 2 FBI man W. Mark Felt was "Deep Throat," the source who revealed details of the Watergate conspiracy to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who are sometimes referred to as "Woodstein." Felt's boss at the FBI was L. Patrick Gray, known as "Three-Day Gray" because he rarely put in a full week at FBI headquarters.

Gray died in 2005, as did other nicknamed nabobs. A fond farewell to writer Hunter S. "Dr. Gonzo" Thompson, bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, baseball player Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe and Maggie "Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers" Bailey.


Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune