I wrote this in the days when the world waited with much anticipation on the naming of the Royal baby in England and I was reminded about how names come about in the islands of our beloved West Indies.
We come from a region where the nickname reigns supreme. Parents in the West Indies who so loving take time out to pick out a name for their child, must also be prepared that the chances of this name surviving the child into adulthood is practically zero.
We come from a region of drama, highlighters and exclamation marks! It is not enough to explain action or inaction, it must be dramatized and exaggerated and twice repeated.
We come from a region where the dance is just another form of sexual expression taken to the extreme as the music gets louder and louder as the evening wears on. Never mind the pretentions we put on during working hours. Let the band break loose and it shakes our moral fiber so loose that it rolls all over the floor. We have no control over ourselves and it is like trying to nail jello to the wall.
The famous West Indian author V.S. Naipaul gives us an idea with his book “Miguel Street” how we West Indians live and deal with one another. Also Paul Keens Douglas, in his many presentations throughout the region has introduced us to a host of characters with nicknames, who in some ways remind you of people you happen to know on your own island.
My father’s nickname was “Johnson”. Even my mother called him Johnson. Many will say;” But wasn’t that his name anyway?” Not really. In the society I grew up in, only shopkeepers, and a few government officials were called Mr. Peterson, or Mr. Hassell. Sometimes one would suffice with calling the gentleman Mr. Carl, Mr. Chester, Mr. Bloomy and so on.
My father was a mason and later on he became a government foreman on the famous motor vehicle road. So he did not merit a “Mister” in front of his name. I asked him once how come people called him Johnson and he informed me that ever since he was a boy people had started calling him Johnson. It could have been worse, they could had started calling him “Piccadilly Square” or something like that. People would usually send his bills addressed to Mr. Johnson-Johnson. They had no idea that his full name was Daniel Thomas Johnson. He went through life being called Johnson and I never heard my mother calling him anything else but that.
In the case of the Royal baby the name turned out to be based on historical characters among his ancestors and depending on the times in which he lives, his constituents (if he has any left) may end up calling him “Georgie Boy” or something of sorts.
Here by us no matter how carefully the couple will plan on what name to give the child sooner or later a nickname will be tagged on him. This he will carry for the rest of his life and his real name will be forgotten. On the other hand nowadays in many cases there need not be much fear of the baby acquiring a nickname like “Teeth” or “Sleepy”. Many names being given nowadays, are so difficult to pronounce or to remember that there is no need for a nickname. People pronounce it in a way that someone corrects them in the process of pronunciation and they succumb with “whatever”.
I usually read the death announcements in the newspapers. Not so much to find out details on the persons life, but to check on a.k.a. (also known as) and lately I also see b.k.a. (better known as). What a treasure trove of nicknames I have found there. And in our society West Indians have unusual talents in coming up with nicknames like “Pork Chop”, “Spare Parts” and a host of other exceptional names.
Take for instance “Spare Parts”. Whoever gave him that name must have imagined someone thrown together from leftover bits and pieces and started calling him that. Someone in the genius category of pegging nicknames to people had a great deal of inspiration when he came up with that name.
Back to “Pork Chop”. An American magazine once carried an interview with someone by that name. And guess what he was eating while giving an assessment of world affairs to the interviewer? A pork chop of course. A friend of mine once burned down the government administration building and the governors house on St. Maarten. As a boy in a Chinese restaurant on Aruba while eating a pork chop he saw a police officer at another table doing the same thing. After finishing his pork chop he went across to the police officer stuck the pork chop bone in his back, told him to put up his hands and proceeded to parade the policeman down the street. The policeman only caught on after he noticed how much bystanders were laughing. You would think that one of them or both would have gotten labeled with the name “Pork Chop” but no,it was another friend on St. Maarten who got the name “Pork Chop”.
Once during Carnival somehow he ended up on Saba. He called me the following morning to let me know that the police had “put him up” for the night and to ask if I could pay his passage back to St. Maarten. My first inclination was to think, how nice of the police until I realized that “putting up” actually meant that he had been jailed. When I got the bill from my brother Freddie at the end of the month it read: “Passage to St. Maarten for Mr. Pork Chop.” I am pretty sure that I have that receipt somewhere in one of my boxes.
On St.Maarten I knew people like “Mother-in-Trouble” and her brother “Appetite”. It is claimed that she gave herself this nickname. She would come daily to see me at the Post office and to mail letters from friends at the “Sweet Repose” on the Back Street. For some reason very few women carry nicknames. A few mind you but nothing compared to the men.
On some islands like Curacao you have nicknames like “Papa”, “Shon”, “Boy” and so on. One of our Prime Ministers, Silvio Rozendaal was proud of his nickname “Boy”. In the United States however it is a big insult to call a man of colour “Boy”. I remember in the sixties a young tourist who looked white with a white wife and children, went berserk and had to be restrained when another male tourist called him “Boy.” He later explained how the term was used and why the other tourist had called him “Boy.” It is good to know these things because the United States believes that the whole world thinks and acts like them. In the West Indies we call every male Boy. From a toddler to a ninety year old, it is “boy come here”, “boy do that”, and even the Prime Minister we called him “Boy” and he really appreciated that.
One of the disadvantages, especially to politicians was that after a while the nickname reigns supreme and the real name of the person is lost. No nicknames were allowed on the voters list. I once tried to make a case to those responsible for the voters list to allow nicknames to be added to the real names. It was not to be and now the Dutch don’t allow voters lists to be issued any more. For privacy reasons they claim. They don’t hesitate from making all your other business public though.
If my suggestion had gone through, the voters list would have looked something like this: Thomas Hassell a.k.a. “Clorox”, Winston Johnson also known as “Toothpick”, Leroy Wilson also known as “Rum Belly”, Daniel Peterson also known as “Slimy”. There is virtually not one male in the entire West Indies who does not now have or at least at one time have had a nickname. A friend of mine in the Boys town Christian Zagers used to call me “Duffy” for a while. Perhaps because I was short. But after a sudden growth spurt even he did not call me that anymore. Recently my fruit supplier Cisco, via a Medical Student, sent to inform me not to call him by that name anymore and that his new name was “Scooby- Doo”. So there you have it. A case where people even peg a nickname on themselves.
As I write this it is getting late and I am getting “Sleepy”, but before I go to bed I want to put my “Teeth” into a “Pork Chop” and then dream of the “Hard Times” people go through when they have to survive in a world addicted to nicknames. People in these islands organize contests of all kinds. It is truly amazing that no one has yet come up with a contest for the most unusual nickname. Perhaps after reading this someone will think that this is a wonderful idea. After all if one can organize “I love my ram goat” contest, then why not a contest for the most unique nickname. I can think of a few from the past like “Glass Bottle”, “After Effects” “Droopsy” “Squeaky” “Shady” “Darkie” “Whitey” “Brownie” and so on.
So in future when you meet someone from the islands, write down his name as you might never hear it again until on his demise you read in the paper that Melvin Rodgers a.ka. “Smelly” has passed away and you will say to yourself “I knew him once”. The nickname takes over, buries your true identity, puts you in a safe house like the C.I.A. does with informants, and the nickname takes you to the grave, when friends and even members of your family only then find out what your real name was.
The last time I saw “Pork Chop” was when I was a member of the board of the electricity company on St. Maarten. It was a hot and muggy July day and I was in a rush to get inside the building for a meeting. Then I saw him coming. Dressed he was in a Santa Claus suit with cap and all and ringing a large bell coming down backstreet and wishing one and all a Merry Christmas. I am still grateful that he was headed in another direction than I was and I could escape into the building. And be careful. If you do not have a nickname yet it is an ever present menace in the West Indies. Get caught up in a stupid or funny situation and there you go with a nickname pegged to you until people forget who you really were. Like the man in the iron mask your entire past will be lost and absorbed into a nickname like “Left Overs” or “Cotton Cloth” and the song and dance around you goes on until the last day when your real name will once again be revealed to the general public a.k.a. (also known as).