No matter the origin, nicknames stick for life

March 28, 1997


Staff Writer

Carol Marcum earned the moniker "Grandma Chickie Leg" when she was only about 9 or 10 years old, she said.

Her sisters, one older and one younger, would each grab a leg and pull in different directions, remembers the 45-year-old Hagerstown woman.

"They used to call me Grandma Chickie Leg because I would scream like a chicken," she explained.

They still laugh about it whenever the family sits down to a chicken dinner, Marcum said.

There hasn't been much research on the psychological meaning or impact of nicknames despite how common they are, especially in small towns, according to local psychologists Ann M. Filinger and Lou Lichti.

Nicknames can originate with a striking physical feature, an attempt to shorten a difficult-to-pronounce name or a young sibling's cute attempt at pronunciation, said Filinger, who was known as "Filly" when she was a camp counselor in college.


"Most of them start out as an affectionate gesture," Filinger said.

Eventually, nicknames can become part of a person's identity and influence self-esteem. That can be a problem if the nickname is derogatory, Lichti said.

Whatever their origin, nicknames can stick like glue until a person's real name becomes forgotten.

For instance, many people don't know that the supervisor of health education, physical education and athletics at the Washington County Board of Education is named Eugene Martin.

Most people just call him "Yogi."

"I got that from classmates in second grade," at Rouzerville Elementary School in Franklin County, Pa., said Martin, now 55.

He earned it when he challenged a boy nicknamed Yogi to a foot race and beat him, he said. "I sort of like the nickname,'' Martin said.

David A. Spessard, 49, a laborer and truck driver for the Washington County Roads Department, was christened "Greasey" at 17.

He was shoveling along a road, beside a paving machine, when he accidentally backed into a five gallon bucket of fuel and sat down in it, Spessard said.

"I kept that name all these years," he said.

A nickname can describes a favorite pastime.

Eugene Lynn Bitner, who works in maintenance for the Washington County Parks Department and Health Department, has been called "Lotto" for more than nine years.

"I play the lottery and buy rub-offs," Bitner explained. The nickname was even printed on his uniform shirt.

Bitner declined to say how many lottery tickets he buys each day: "My wife would kill me."

Vincent Ruck, 69, of Hagerstown, was nicknamed "Doc" when he was only 2.

Ruck used to sit in the lap of an elderly neighbor, take out the man's red bandana, twist the corner of it and dab it at the neighbor's eye as if he were trying to help him get something out of his eye, Ruck said.

The nickname has had staying power.

Ruck worked at Fairchild for years and "a lot of people there never did know my right name," he said. "I still go by that now."

Some nicknames were attached to people when they were so young that no one can remember their origin.

William B. McKinley, director of secondary schools for Washington County, has answered to the inexplicable moniker "Bump" since he was about 2.

"The rumor is that my babysitter gave it to me when I was very little but I don't know why," McKinley said.

The nickname may have come from a series of songs she used to sing to him, he speculated.

Nicknames are rampant in Williamsport, where he grew up and lives today, McKinley said.

For Brian Imes, 32, of Hagerstown, getting a nickname was literally a hair-raising experience.

When he was a child his hair was pure white. "It literally glowed," Imes said.

Two of his brothers nicknamed him "Moonglow" and one brother still calls him that sometimes even though Imes' hair turned sandy blonde as a teen, he said.

"It's a joke. It doesn't bother me," Imes said.

Nicknames also help to distinguish among the generations.

Former Hancock Mayor Ralph Wachter is better known as "Buddy."

"My father's nickname was Bud so to differentiate they called me Buddy," he said. "That's the only name I knew I had until I went to school."

In Calvert County, where Wachter was superintendent of schools for nine years and then president of the Chamber of Commerce, everyone called him Ralph but back home in Hancock he's still known as Buddy, he said.

Bonnie Korrell, of Hagerstown, said she gave her daughter Patricia Lee the nickname "Tissy" when she was just a few hours old.

Korrell, a first-time mother, was finally alone in her hospital room with her new baby for the first time but the baby "was throwing a tissy fit. She just wailed and carried on," Korrell recalled.

A few weeks later "Tissy's" maternal grandmother added "Belle" to the nickname "because Mom thought she was the most beautiful baby in the world," Korrell said.

When "Tissy Belle" started kindergarten at Funkstown Elementary School last fall she was embarrassed when her mother called her by her nickname and announced, "My name is Patricia," Korrell said.

Still, Korrell finds it a little hard to call her that. "It's such a big name for a little girl," she said.

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