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Pongo, Bonzo, Bubsy and Spud: A eulogy for the great New Zealand nickname

On playing fields, in classrooms and at workplaces across the country, the colloquial Kiwi nickname once ruled the roost. But now, writes John ‘Nick’ Harnett, those who go by a nickname are members of a dying breed.

What happened to nicknames? Almost everyone had one when I went to school and, most of the time, they continued into adulthood. Nicknames were part and parcel of growing up. But ask a youngish man about them now – they were never so popular with girls – and you draw a blank.

That change suggests school is no longer as central to a young man’s development as it used to be. A person’s individuality, which once took shape and developed at school – and which a nickname highlighted – is being eroded by social media, where self-selected usernames rarely make the leap into real life. And that’s a shame, because a nickname tells us more about a person than their social media accounts – or, for that matter, their birth name – ever could. It implies an identity that is unique to the individual.

The great English essayist William Hazlitt, said, “Of all eloquence, a nickname is the most concise. It is the only figure of speech that can excite a strong idea without any evidence.” Take my friend ‘Cork’ McAra, formerly of Hastings, now living in Brisbane, His nickname implies the opposite of what a cork does. At farting, he was unrivalled. His proper name is Robert.

The nicknamed, clockwise from top left: Richard ‘Paddles’ Hadlee, Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins, Peter ‘Possum’ Bourne, Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, Alex ‘Grizz’ Wyllie and Robert ‘Piggy’ Muldoon.

I have a theory that nicknames are disappearing because the digital world is making people increasingly alike. A recent survey in the United States showed that students between the age of eight and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using social media outside school and that 12 to 17 year-olds use text messages more than any other form of communication. They engage with a screen – mobiles, iPads, computers, tablets and TV monitors – every chance they get, whether they’re on buses, in cars, at the beach, at dinner or in bed.

The habits of New Zealand students are almost certainly comparable.

At least people stay in touch, and that’s absolutely a good thing. But there is no eye contact, visual or vocal clues contained in their communications. The opportunities for face to face interaction – the nursery for nicknames – have been dramatically reduced.

My nickname is Nick. I was given it by ‘Fang’ Kavanagh – birth name Pat – in St Patrick’s Church, Greymouth, when I was about 12. Mass was a Thursday morning ritual for pupils at Greymouth Marist and the girls at St Mary’s Convent next door. Fang and I were in a pew next to one another behind a large pillar and I was doing something he didn’t like. Maybe I was paying more attention to the convent girls than what was taking place on the altar. He turned to me and said, “Nick’s got hold you,” meaning Old Nick, the devil – which is itself a nickname.

What surprises me most about nicknames – and this goes for most of them – isn’t the name itself, or how it came about, but the way it takes hold after one person utters it in a single moment in a random setting. Fang probably repeated the name on the way back to class, then at playtime someone else heard it, and it was passed on like a cold. I’m still known as ‘Nick’ in Greymouth.

Giving someone a nickname is also taking a liberty. The donor assumes the right to condense an individual’s persona to a single characteristic, and get it established through repeated use.

As for Fang, his father gave the name to him because a couple of teeth popped through at a very young age. He retired a few years ago as a police inspector in Christchurch; he’s still known as Fang.

There is nothing you can do about getting nickname either. They are awarded, not chosen, and can be dispensed with affection or malice. Andy Hobson, an Australian living in London in the 1960s, told a flatmate he had been to see a doctor about a sore backside. The doctor diagnosed piles. To this day, he is known as ‘Andy Loose Tubes.’

Nicknames are still popular in sports teams – half the All Blacks and Black Caps have one, for example. Otherwise, I haven’t come across a young man or woman with a nickname in years.

I’m from Greymouth originally; I left in the early ’60s. Since then I’ve lived in Christchurch, and worked on daily newspapers in Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland. I can say without a doubt that Greymouth cultivated nicknames at a greater rate than those cities and, quite probably, more than any other part of the country.

Which suggests to me that there is more individuality in Greymouth and the West Coast than any other part of New Zealand. I’d love to be proven wrong.

I know of Greymouth blokes who answer to the names (all genuine) Onion, Pongo, Boofer, Buck, Moose, Mussa, Snigger, Baggy, Salty, Budgie, Brun, Fox, Zeke, Bonzo, Gibbie, Smacker, Sniff, Buster, Bomber, Chooky, Bung, Spaz, Dingdong, Honker, Bubsy, Spacey, Kooser, Dusty, Mocky, Mousie, Barrel, Crash, Drac, Sos, Rinty, Possum, Buddha, Cocky, Boxer, Whoop, Cheezey, Beef, Tinker, Toocey, Pug, Spud, Dooley, Glossy, Tua, Locker, Ham, Chang, Tunny, Hoot, Snowy, Bottly, Sixfoot, Tojo, Shorty, Bones, Fizzer and Jockey.

Some no longer live there and a few have passed away. Even so, there is a unique story attached to each and every one of them.


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