The Art of the Nickname

Make room, Big Papi. Every young athlete deserves the honor of a great nickname

Steve Morris

| 5 min read

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Nicknames can be funny, or descriptive, alliterative or just off-the-wall. When employed thoughtfully, they bolster, humanize, and lighten, emphasizing the fun and whimsicality of our common enterprise. Forget about science; at their best, nicknames are high art. 

In sports, nicknames are not only common, they’re de rigueur. Every athlete worthy of a shout-out on SportsCenter has one. Any sports fan can readily recall the alter egos of The Great Bambino (or the Sultan of Swat, same guy), Shoeless Joe, Dr. J, Magic, Air Jordan, Big Papi, Broadway Joe, Sugar Ray… Through time, and loving use, the athletes and their nicknames have merged to burnish their legend. 

Everyone I know gets a nickname. Peter becomes Petie, Paul Pablo, Robin is Robbo. Growing up on Long Island, every Gary, Larry, Barry or Harry became Ga, La, Ba or Ha (pronounced with the flat “a” of hat). Laurie was Law. 

Early on, Morris was shortened to “Mo” and to a sizable portion of my friends, that’s who I still am. It never bothered me; on the contrary, I’ve answered to it proudly. Maybe it began my own career of nicknaming friends, campers, players, and even my own kids who possess an ever-evolving collection of crazy monikers. 

Some are obvious – Coopie or Coopuh for Cooper, Jordo for Jordan, Morgo for Morgan, Steenie for Christine or Christie. You can probably guess where Nato and Claydo began. Adding an “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,”, “u,” and more than sometimes “y” can do the trick for almost any name, proving that vowels can be fun. But some, rather than emerging from a person’s actual name, sprout from character traits. 

Ari was a beast, a force of nature on [my son] Evan’s U12 Pythons. The first time I saw him two years earlier at All-Star tryouts, packing Thor’s hammer inside his shoe, he pounded the ball the length of the field, high over the heads of all the boys, and landed it just in front of the other goal. In that moment, Ari the Boot was born. Over time The Boot has been sanded down to Booto. 

Dani [from when I coached the Pali-Cats] was also a monster. Already at 10, she played with pluck and determination, outworking opponents, and scoring buckets of goals with an authoritative right leg. She was also effervescent, her enthusiasm occasionally overflowing. She became The Monster, almost immediately shortened to Monster. Monster became Monstie, then Monstro, and the abbreviated Stro, beefing slightly back up to Strollie, a more mellifluous variation. From Monster to Strollie? No matter. Dani basks in the singularity her name confers. 

Some nicknames are clunky and clamor to be changed. The Pali-Cat years saw two Mackenzies on the squad. One became Mac G, the other Mac H, differentiating them by the initials of their last names. Compromised from conception, they were awkward to cheer for (Go Mac HHHHH! Nice shot, Mac GEEEE! Nah). It was Dori and her teammates that ultimately and organically converted to Howie (Mac H’s last name being Howe) and G for Mac G. Short, sweet, easy. Go Howie! Go G! Makes sense. 

Within reason – and the bounds of good taste – almost anything goes when conferring nicknames. Maybe not Shorty or Chubbs, even if employed ironically for tall or skinny athletes. Kids’ sensitivities are difficult to predict. Maybe the towering 10-year-old feels insecure about his elevation and that super-slight 13-year-old, despite being on a milkshake diet, simply cannot gain weight. If we’re trying to motivate, empower or charm the young athlete, staying away from physical characteristics in awarding nicknames would be a wise idea. 

But for the most part, when bestowed with affection, humor and understanding, kids love nicknames. They make them feel bigger than themselves. Appreciated. Seen. What could be more important than that? 

Excerpted from What Size Balls Do I Need: A Road Map for Survival in the Dizzying World of Youth Sports by Steve Morris. 

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