King James Rules a Kingdom of Plebeian Nicknames

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King James Rules a Kingdom of Plebeian Nicknames
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
King James and D-Wade might win the championship in 2012, but they're tied for last place in nicknames.

A-Rod. K-Rod. F-Rod. I-Rod. We are not living in the Golden Age of nicknames.

J-Roll. O-Dog. T-Mac. D-Wade. These are not nicknames—they’re contractions. They’re abbreviations.

Crowned King James at the outset of a career that has yet to see him win a championship, LeBron James was dubbed so because that version of the Bible is common parlance. It had—and has, given that he’s ruled nothing yet in the NBA—no relevance.

LeBron James might as well be nicknamed “Vulgate.”

At least King Carl Hubbell won a World Series—besides, Hubbell’s other moniker, the “Meal Ticket,” possessed more panache than an overblown royal title, anyway.

Last summer came the Dream Team, the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles—a tag laughably hyperbolic for a team yet to play a preseason game.

Like King James, the Dream Team was anointed prematurely, but proclaimed so—as were the 1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball squad and O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys—simply because it’s a catchy rhyme. 

And converting verbal trifling to the visual, the Milwaukee Brewers’ embarrassing “beast mode” bear-hug gestures, spotlighted during the 2011 stretch drive and playoffs nearly every time a Brewer got a hit, spawned variants that the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers mindlessly replicated when they knocked an extra-base hit in the World Series.

Like many aspects of American culture and industry, we’ve grown lazy and uninventive with our nicknames. Short attention spans beget cut-rate culture, and our information and entertainment now are largely disseminated in sound bites, top-10 lists and capsule descriptions.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Until Vlad "the Impaler" Guerrero sets opposing pitchers up on pikes or is portrayed on film by Gary Oldman, his nickname remains nothing more than the product of lazy writers.

(And do we really need the winning score on the sports ticker highlighted yellow, or has American brain function fallen that far?)

Compounding this, we’ve become a country of copycats—the electronic Westminster chimes played at Yankee Stadium when a Pinstripe crosses the plate now is heard in numerous ballparks, the Lambeau Leap is leapt in most NFL stadiums, every franchise’s fanbase calls itself a “nation,” all victorious hockey teams head-tap their goalie, walk-off baseball teams huddle at home plate and jump up and down and, somehow, dumping Gatorade on a winning coach remains epidemic.

Kung Fu Panda isn’t a nickname—it’s a film title. You can’t lift an unrelated name wholesale, attach it to Pablo Sandoval and expect it to carry legitimacy. At least in Yogi Berra’s day, when America still prided itself on its ingenuity, cartoon names were based on the players.

And the same goes for Vlad “the Impaler” Guerrero, Phat Albert Pujols (backronymic spelling aside), the insipid Billy “the Kid” Wagner and the monumentally insipid “Big Ben” Roethlisberger, whose moniker technically is “Big” and exists only because of a clock that doesn’t even look like him.

There was a time in America when sportswriters sat back, puffed a stogie and conjured truly lyrical sobriquets.

Granted, in the days of Grantland Rice, prose sometimes flowed too floridly (Babe Ruth was conferred more than two dozen nicknames, the majority increasingly asinine as rival sportswriters tried to top each other), but great nicknames, even for not-so-great players, abounded: the Big Train, the Yankee Clipper, the Fordham Flash, Charlie Hustle, Big Poison and Little Poison, Peanuts Lowrey and Pretzels Getzien, Ice Box Chamberlain and Piano Legs Hickman.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Pat Burrell. Clearly, he is not a bat.

(Of course, you can’t nickname someone “Piano Legs” in these politically correct days without incensing the gout-ridden.)

Alas, our attention-deficited nation now roots in the era of ManRam, Starbury, Pat the Bat and Hunter the Punter.

It's not clear who set American culture on this downward spiral—perhaps the self-dubbed and head-smackingly obvious Stevie “Guitar” Miller in the late Sixties—but modern culture was mortally wounded by whoever christened Dennis Eckersley as “The Eck” and dealt a deathblow by whichever genius first typed “Brangelina” into his gossip column.

No wonder the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—an international forum committed to improving economic and social well-being—recently downgraded the United States to “average” in international education rankings.

As a nation, we’re not so bright anymore—a dangerous flaw to combine with our lagging sense of invention. How long until the Chinese surpass us in nickname quality?

Sports and entertainment, like the games of ancient Rome, keep America blithely distracted from the hardships of reality, and our stars and celebrities, like their gladiators, keep us looking the other way. Dumb it down too much and our heroes lose their mystique—and, like Rome, the system eventually falls apart.

After all, no Roman ever referred to Spartacus as “S-Thrace.”

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