Nicknames Can Be More Consequential Than Nicknacks

There are various ways we learn about a fictional character, and one shorthand route is when she or he has a memorable nickname.

Such is the case with the co-star of Kristin Hannah’s riveting, heartbreaking 2015 novel The Nightingale, which I finished yesterday. Isabelle is a young French woman who, during World War II, is nicknamed “The Nightingale” when she bravely risks her life time and time again sneaking downed British and American pilots out of Nazi-occupied France. Isabelle’s nickname evokes the night (the best traveling time to avoid detection during her fraught trips) as well as the melodious nightingale bird and the founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale. The prickly, rebellious Isabelle — just 18 when she joins the French Resistance — is a helper. 

Obviously, a nickname can have negative connotations, too. In another WWII novel, Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller The Huntress, the title is the sobriquet of a woman who was a murderous Nazi before changing her identity and marrying an American. The man has no idea of his new wife’s awful history, but his daughter suspects there’s something fishy about her stepmother. The daughter and others try to out “The Huntress.”

Diana Gabaldon’s engrossing Outlander — the title of her first novel and the overall name of the series even as the other eight books have their own titles — is the nickname of 20th-century-born Englishwoman Claire, who meets 18th-century-born Jamie of Scotland when she time travels. Claire is an “Outlander”: someone from another time and place.

Then there is Isabel Allende’s Zorro (the Spanish word for fox), whose title character’s real name is Diego de la Vega. Allende’s 2005 novel is an origin story of the masked, sword-wielding justice seeker created by Johnston McCulley in 1919.

Also, Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian gets its title from the nickname of botanist-astronaut Mark Watney when he gets stranded alone on Mars.

Some nicknames can be partly ironic, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby has laboriously tried to build an aura of greatness around himself, but he’s actually rather pathetic.

I blogged about nicknames in fiction once before in a 2016 post that contained mentions of such novels as Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), and James Fenimore Cooper’s 19th-century “Leatherstocking” series of five interrelated books.

“The Butterflies” is the nickname of the Mirabal sisters who, in Alvarez’s historical-fiction novel, courageously oppose vicious Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.

“The Natural” is the nickname of Roy Hobbs, a baseball phenom whose given name is an amalgam of real-life Major League legends Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. But life is far from easy for Hobbs, even as the 1984 movie version starring Robert Redford gave some of Malamud’s novel a more uplifting spin not true to the book.

Natty Bumppo of the “Leatherstocking” series gets several nicknames. The sharp-shooting, wilderness-savvy character is “The Pathfinder” in one book, “The Deerslayer” in another book, “Hawkeye” in The Last of the Mohicans, etc. All monikers with more gravitas than “Bumppo,” that’s for sure. 🙂

My 2016 post also mentioned — among other characters — “The Artful Dodger” (pickpocket Jack Dawkins) of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and “He Who Must Not Be Named” (villainous Lord Voldemort) of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. 

Any nicknames in fiction that come to mind for you?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about dueling petitions and more — is here.

98 thoughts on “Nicknames Can Be More Consequential Than Nicknacks

  1. Pingback: Nicknames Can Be More Consequential Than Nicknacks | BLISSARENA

  2. I’ve always had a fondness for “Half Pint” in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series and Jo for Josephine March of “Little Women.” There was a point in my life when I was finally able to have my sister and friends call me Jo. She was my first inspiration for writing and permission to be a ‘tomboy.’ 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Two very memorable nicknames (and characters) in literature. I can see how you would relate to the strong, admirable Jo in “Little Women” — and wonderful that some people called you by that name.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Outside of literature, some of the most colorful American nicknames came from baseball players of the past such as The Sultan of Swat, The Big Train, The Yankee Clipper, The Splendid Splinter, Hammerin’ Hank etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Anonymous! Yes, those vivid nicknames for Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron! Others that come to mind include Shoeless Joe Jackson, Dizzy Dean (Jay Dean), Stan the Man (Stan Musial), Charlie Hustle (Pete Rose), Mr. October (Reggie Jackson), The Bird (Mark Fidrych), Oil Can Boyd (Dennis Boyd), The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas), etc.!


  4. Someone here earlier mentioned “Sally Tomato,” either as a nickname or an also-known-as. My nickname growing up was the plural of Sally’s last name — Tomatoes, no doubt because my last name is pronounced tuh-May-us. So nicknames in real life can affect people, too, in good and bad ways. As for tomatoes themselves, I’ll eat them uncooked and sliced but never stewed. So Tomatoes, me, has definite feelings about tomatoes, maybe in part because of my stupid nickname, which also applied to my three sisters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill! It’s unfortunate that some people cruelly twist some names into what they consider insults. Sorry that happened to you and your sisters. As a kid, I got some of that with “variations” on the first syllable of my last name.


  5. Late to the party, and many names have been suggested. I also picked up a few recommendations for books I should read. I was about to say that no one would ever make a movie version of Silas Marner, but a quick check proved me wrong. I was thinking of Eppie. More of a new name than a nickname but a character I remember. When we were made to read Silas Marner, everyone seemed to dread the assignment. I enjoyed it, and I reread it years later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Dan! Not late to the party at all. 🙂

      Nice to hear from a fellow “Silas Marner” fan! I know some students don’t like it, but I loved it. Then again, I didn’t read it for the first time until I was well into adulthood, so perhaps that had something to do with it, but I think I would have enjoyed it as a high schooler, too.

      As you might know, Eppie was also the nickname of the late advice columnist Ann Landers.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A number of books sprung to mind for this mind. I’ve just finished reading ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart. Most of the characters throughout this novel have nicknames but, as is true in real life, it’s a useful way to distinguish between people especially if their names are similar.
    Other books that I thought of…’Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding – poor Piggy never gets to shake off that unfortunate moniker. ‘Of Mice And Men’ by John Steinbeck – Crooks (although I wonder if he got his name before or after his accident?), Curley’s Wife – not a nickname as such it does reveal the power that lies in a name. ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh – Rents, Sick Boy, Spud, Mother Superior….and to finish on something piratey – what about Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Yes, lots of nicknames in Dickens’s novels as mentioned above. There are aka like Artful Dodger, Tiny Tim and Robinson Crusoe’s Friday. Holly Golightly vs Lulamae as well as Sally Tomato the mob boss. Many murder mysteries use aka names since criminals want to hide their true identity. Why does congressman George Santos come to mind here? And pet names in romance novels vs pet name of pets–thinking of that old joke, we call our dog tinsmith because he’s always trying to make a bolt for the door. Perhaps it should be broken down categorically; however, that jes my OCD speaking. Funny little link that speaks to your theme Dave, and thanks, Susi aka as anonymous:

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susi! That crook George Santos is definitely relevant with his use of a past alias or three. Hopefully he’ll have a prison nickname soon…

      And I appreciate the references to aliases and nicknames in murder mysteries and among people who are romantically involved.

      LOL — your dog reference, and that video you linked to! 😂


      • Thanks Dave. As I started thinking about literary nicknames, I couldn’t get that C&W song outta my mind. Not a big fan of that music, but some I really liked, John Prine particularly. What can I say–growing up in Texas and living in Austin, some of them are stuck there permanently esp David Alan Coe’s song: “You don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin’. You never even called me by my name…” What an earworm that is. Yikes! Great post Dave.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield was called nicknames such as Davy, Trotwood, Daisy, and Doady by different characters in the novel. I had to look it up in the web to refresh my memory since I read this book some years ago. I can’t think of another fictitious character with so many nicknames.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” two Russian aristocratic sisters had English language nicknames, “Dolly” and “Kitty”. I believe this showed that the Russian elite in the 19th Century admired Western European culture, they often spoke French and were somewhat familiar with English and German.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. US military nicknames:

    Old Hickory (Andrew Jackson), Old Blood and Guts (George Patton), Old Rough and Ready (Zachary Taylor), Old Fuss and Feathers (Winfield Scott).

    Conferred, one would guess, by younger military personnel.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Nicknames? Street names? More or less the same thing, in the aulde daze of Black music (and today– I just don’t know the scene)

    Off the top of my old head I can list some colorful examples:

    Furry Lewis. Gitfiddle Jim. Barrelhouse Sammy. Blues Birdhead. Funny Paper Smith. Sweet Papa Stovepipe. Peanut the Kidnapper. The Black Ace. Howling Wolf. Muddy Waters. King Solomon Hill. Jellyroll Morton. Willie the Lion. Champion Jack Dupree. Jabbo Smith. Lady Day. Prez. Beans. Duke Ellington. Count Basie. Satchelmouth, Dippermouth. Bird. Dizzy Gillespie. Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-In-Law. Scrapper Blackwell. Sleepy John Estes. Hound Dog Taylor. Bo Diddly.

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      • I did read it years ago. I just loved the ‘ They seek him here,’ etc. It was the kind of adventure book I liked at a certain age. Seeing Sarah’s reply I don’t know how I missed Piggy and Long John. A lot of film and TV characters came to mind instead, like the Lone Ranger. All the characters in Netflix’s quite brill Money Heist are named after capital cities by ‘the Professor’ and don’t know one another’s real names, his either. I used a nickname for a kind of phantom character, more an invented bogey man than anything in my last book. Then I had a lot of fun with the characters trying to work out who that person was. Nicknames are good.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Excellent examples of character nicknames from places other than books, Shehanne! The Lone Ranger is definitely iconic. And of course there are comic book nicknames like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, etc., etc. And wonderful that you made great use of a nickname in your own writing!

          Liked by 1 person

    • Shey – I just found out that the Scarlet Pimpernel had sequels – 10 from what I have read. I did NOT know this until just recently. I also read that the Scarlet Pimpernel laid the groundwork for later heroes who led doubles lives: ie. Superman, Batman, Zorro, the Shadow and the Phantom. Again, I did NOT know this until just recently. I continue to learn.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Rebecca xxxx. I just remember it was the first to spawn the words ‘They seek him here, they seek him there,’ I won’t give the next line incase I am deemed racist in terms of the French. BUT in terms of Batman,Zorro and co, the groundwork was laid for the ordinary person to be this other persona.

        Liked by 2 people

        • The Scarlet Pimpernel was much more influential than I realized!

          Also, “The Phantom” comic strip that began in the 1930s had some influence on the later creation of Batman, etc. The Phantom wearing a mask and all that…

          Liked by 1 person

      • HI Rebecca, I have the Scarlet Pimpernel on my TBR but haven’t read it yet. I have now been sidetracked by the Dickens readathon which I’m going to participate in. The challenge is to read three of his novellas and I hadn’t actually heard of any of them except A Christmas Carol. I have just bought a book which contains six of his Christmas themed short stories for the challenge.

        Liked by 2 people

  11. It’s fascinating the way a nickname can define the character of a novel. I’ve added The Nightingale to my To Read List: Thanks for the mention. I’ve just finished reading the personally unsettling novel How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones whose central character Stella, a young wife physically abused by her husband, insists on being called by her self-defining nickname Lala.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! You’re right that a nickname can really define a novel — and a character. Hope you find “The Nightingale” compelling; I think you would.

      “How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House” DOES sound unsettling — and what a title for a novel! Physical abuse in a marriage is infuriating. 😠

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Nicknames are powerful! Here are the ones that I have come to love over my years of reading.

    The Scarlet Pimpernel
    The Black Arrow
    Robin Hood
    Le Long Carbine
    Frodo “The Ringbearer”
    Pip from Great Expectations
    Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird
    Holden Caulfied is often referred to “the catcher in the rye”

    A wonderful post – I will come back to follow the conversation.

    P.S. I don’t think we ever know the real name of Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I was pleased to have, for once, read a number of the books you featured 🙂 I finally read The Great Gatsby last summer. I was sucker-punched by that last, pathetic little ‘to do’ list the narrator found, at the end. Couldn’t believe it wasn’t included in the latest version of the movie: wasn’t it pretty much the whole point of the book?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Patti! Great that you read a number of the books mentioned! I must confess that while I’ve read “The Great Gatsby” twice, I never saw any of the movie versions — including the latest one. But I’m never surprised when a film leaves out something important from the book. 😦

      Liked by 3 people

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