Sunday, March 27, 2011

What's In a Name? Mobsters and Loggers

What's in a name? Earlier this year, I wrote about surnames in both the United States and Central Europe.  i mentioned in passing the distinction between so-called "natural" and "artificial" names. The former are based on personal attributes of the first bearer:  e.g. physical traits, character, occupation, and so forth. Nicknames are not quite the same as natural names, but they, too, often derive from the habits or appearance of the person in question.

The American organized crime world has long been known for colorful nicknames, and so, when there was a major wave of arrests in New York January, Joe Coscarelli of the Village Voice, quite understandably, decided to compile a list of the top 20:
20. VINCENT AULISI, also known as "The Vet"
19. GIOVANNI VELLA, also known as "John Vella," "Mousey" and "Little John"
18. STEPHEN DEPIRO, also known as "Beach"
17. ANTHONY CAVEZZA, also known as "Tony Bagels"
16. JOHN BRANCACCIO, also known as"Johnny Bandana"
15. ANTHINO RUSSO, also known as "Hootie"
14. FRANK BELLANTONI, also known as "Meatball"
13. CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS, also known as "Burger"
12. VINCENZO FROGIERO, also known as "Vinny Carwash"
11. JOSEPH CARNA, also known as "Junior Lollipops"
10. DENNIS DELUCIA, also known as "Fat Dennis," "Little Dennis" and "the Beard"
9. LUIGI MANOCCHIO, also known as "Baby Shacks," "The Old Man," and "the Professor"
8. ANTHONY DURSO, also known as "Baby Fat Larry" and "BFL"
7. GIUSEPPE DESTEFANO, also known as "Pooch"
6. JOHN AZZARELLI, also known as "Johnny Cash"
5. ANDREW RUSSO, also known as "Mush"
4. VINCENT FEBBRARO, also known as "Jimmy Gooch"
3. BENJAMIN CASTELLAZZO, also known as "Benji," "The Claw" and "the Fang"
2. ANTHONY LICATA, also known as "Cheeks," "Anthony Firehawk," "Anthony Nighthawk," "Nighthawk" and "Firehawk"
1. JOHN HARTMANN, also known as "Lumpy," "Fatty" and "Fats"
Not bad, I suppose, though I think only a few really rise to the level of such past classics as "Johnny the Nose" and "Miserable," or "Big Tuna," "Willie Potatoes, "Cockeyed Louis," and "Three Finger Brown."   (1, 2)

Anyway, all this reading about names got me thinking. And then there is serendipity. By purest chance, I got involved in a Twitter conversation with a fellow New Englander about slang. A question arose as to the names for various cast-iron skillets. It suddenly occurred to me that I had a perfect reference work at hand: L.G. Sorden's Lumberjack Lingo (1969). It proved to be doubly appropriate and useful, because it combines the wisdom of my native Midwest and my adopted New England.  My copy of the first edition of this Wisconsin book not only bears the autographs of author and (anonymous) illustrator, but also contains handwritten annotations by an old (now-deceased) Massachusetts hilltown native, who checked off terms he had encountered in his long career.  Problem solved.

Of course, once you've picked up a fascinating book such as this in search of a specific piece of information, you can't just put it down. Rather, you are compelled to keep leafing through it.

The final topic in the book is  "Nicknames of Lumberjacks." As the author explains:
  A camp 'ink slinger' was having trouble keeping the camp records straight because there were three men working at the same camp with the same name. None had a middle name; the men did not start work on the same day, but as each one arrived the problem grew.
  After studying each man's appearance and checking starting dates, the ink slinger solved his problems simply by entering the following names in his book:
1. Dirty Joe Michaud
2. Bald Headed Joe Michaud
3. Joe Come-Lately Michaud
The author goes on to explain that most lumberjacks were known by nicknames. Some, as above, had them assigned. Others chose them in order to shed a past identity. Most, however, received them from their fellow workers. He lists some names of actual lumberjacks from the heyday of the trade in Wisconsin and Michigan. The best of these, IMHO, are quite worthy to stand beside those of any distinguished crime figure.  See what you think:
1. Angus the Pope
2. Battle Axe Nelson
3. Bill the Dangler
4. Blueberry Bob
5. Bug House Lynch
6. Cruel Face
7. Dick the Dancer
8. Double Breasted Corrigan
9. Drop Cake Morley
10. Gin Pole Smith
11. One Round Hogan
12. Pancake Billie
13. Panicky Pete
14. Protestant Jack
15. Prune Juice Doyle
16. Smutty John
17. Stub Nelson
18. The Hemlock Bull
19. Three Fingered Ole
20. Whispering Bill


Joe Thompson said...

The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract's chapter on the 1930s laments the decline of nicknames since the decade that he regards as the height of both imagination and nastiness. "Let's make an all-star team...Gimpy, Wimpy, Blimp, Stinky, Inky, Pinkie, Rowdy Richard, Twitchy, Snooker, Ducky Wucky." Of course Bob Ferguson, who played baseball in the 1870s and 1880s was nicknamed "Death to Flying Things." Now that's a nickname.

Jim Wald said...

You've got me there: hard to top "Death to Flying Things." One could of course continue the list of nicknames across all activities and walks of life. There's a great short book in there somewhere--or maybe it's a new rubric for your blog.

Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for the excellent suggestion. The possibilities are endless. Mayor Pin Head McCarthy of San Francisco, Willie "Woo Woo" Wong, legendary San Francisco basketball player, Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie, Capability Brown, Mad Mike Hoare, Wild Bill Donovan, Archbishop Dagger John Hughes, Kable Kar Kerper...

Jim Wald said...

Yes, Capability Brown being one of my favorite historical figures by virtue of both his name and his contributions to landscape architecture.

Go for it!