What’s Your Name Again?

In the Caribbean you need a nickname, and it won't be an obvious one

  • Comic by Faithe Pantelides

If you live in the West Indies and you don’t have a nickname, then something has to be seriously wrong. Because when it comes to names and nicknames, I don’t think there is one person in all these Caribbean islands who doesn’t have one and is either proud of it, or else so annoyed at it that just to mention it in passing is to invite instant fight. So when someone tells you they don’t have a nickname, bet your life they have one that is so embarrassing that they would rather die than have you find out. Potty-head, for instance.

This is something else we have to blame Columbus for, name-calling. He probably started the whole thing, sailing up and down the West Indies, calling the people’s islands all sorts of dotish names like Conception and Assumption when they had perfectly good Carib and Arawak names already. How can you discover something that was always there, or name something that already had a name?

And we haven’t recovered from the Columbus factor yet. Look at the names we give our steelbands. Tokyo, Red Army, Hell Gate, Desperadoes, Renegades. Those were the old days. These days we have Birdsong, Pan Groove, Scherzando, Angel Harps. You really can’t tell a band by its name, because it’s not really a name, it’s a nickname. Birdsong could be Red Army in disguise, who knows. The New World Order.

But it’s the calypsonians who really took this nickname business to limits that would have Columbus scratching his head. They named themselves after all sorts of things. Famous men, like Kitchener and Stalin. Birds, like Sparrow, Swallow, Robin, Eagle. Royalty, like Prince, Princess and Duke. Verbs, like Explainer, Organiser, Composer, Designer. Even clothes, like Short Pants, Short Shirt and Plain Clothes. Barbados has a singer called Red Plastic Bag. There was a Grenadian calypsonian who insisted that he was Not King Cole.

Caribbean parents aren’t much better off than calypsonians when it comes to naming their children. They give their children some names that are bound to blight them for life. They name them after jewellery, days of the week, screen stars, and of course the Bible. So you come across children with names like Emerald, Tuesday, John Wayne and Ezekiel. I know a woman. who called her daughter Bible. If you hear her. It was Bible do this, Bible do that, Bible come here. Thank God for nickname. Nickname save that child. Because before long the marish and the parish changed up her name to Bibi, which was much nicer.

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Under all the old talk, nickname is really a positive thing in West Indian society. It is one of the ways in which society accepts and accommodates you without making you feel left out. So if you have one foot, they call you Hop ‘n’ Drop, or Flat Tyre. If you’re tall they call you Shorty. If you short they call you Tall Boy. If you ugly they call you handsome. And so on. They don’t pretend that they don’t see your problem; they bring it out in the open for all to see, and for you to accept and not hide.

I know this little boy who came home crying, telling his mother how the children at school called him Big Head. His mother told him not to take them on, how his head was not big at all, how they were just jealous because he had a good-looking mother. Then she told him to go to the shop and buy five pounds of potatoes. He said he didn’t have a bag. She couldn’t resist. The same woman who had just told him his head wasn’t big now said: “No problem, put them in your cap!”

It doesn’t matter what name you give your child: there will always be people around to spoil it. Take my name, for instance. You would think that Paul would be an easy name to say, a nice name like that. But no, it’s Pol, Parl, Pul, Paal and even Pablo.

Then you have people who don’t believe in names at all. You meet them every day, and they call you things like “Aye! “, “Oye” or “Ah-ha!” You know what I think? When people get baptised they should leave their birth certificates blank so you could put in any name you please.