Saturday, January 07, 2012


"Who is that man over there? He looks familiar," I asked my aunt, at a recent gathering during the festive season. "That one there? That is Shtuka," my aunt replied nonchalantly. "Shtuka?" What kind of name is that?" I asked incredulously. "Surely that can't be Greek." "Oh, that's not his real name," my aunt explained unruffled. "That is his nickname. As a young boy during the War, whenever the German Stuka planes would fly over the village, he would point to them and shout "Shtuka, shtuka, shtuka! So the name stuck." One of my greatest regrets is having gone through three decades of sojourn upon the mortal earth without having acquired any respectable sobriquet whatsoever. The acquisition of a «παρατσούκλι,» is inevitable if one lives in a village, under the close scrutiny of one's peers who are eager to seize upon any idiosyncrasy or eccentricity in order to differentiate people from each other. The city on the other hand, situated thousands of miles away from the ancestral coining trough, confers partial protection against the propagation of such titles.
The παρατσούκλι, a usually familiar or humorous but sometimes pointed or cruel name given to a person or place, as a supposedly appropriate replacement for or addition to one's proper name is ubiquitous in Greek culture and has its roots in hallowed antiquity, where a somewhat unhealthy interest in the subject target's ophthalmic health was displayed. Thus, in times Hellenistic, we come across Antigonos I Monophthalmus (the One-eyed), who was the most eminent successor of Alexander the Great and sovereign of Eastern Mediterranean Asia. He obtained his nickname at an early age when he lost one eye fighting at the seige of Perinthos, as a general of King Philip. His contemporary, on the other hand, Ptolemy, king of Egypt, bore the sobriquet "Lagos" (the rabbit). Several Byzantine emperors also have a number of similar nicknames, such as Anastasius I Dicoros (each of his eyes was a different colour), Alexius V Ducas Murtzuphlus (he with the scowling eyebrows), and Andronicus I Comnenus Misophaes (the aptly named hater of sunlight, since he blinded a great number of his opponents). To these must be added the Byzantine Empress Zoe Carvounopsina (she with coal-black eyes). Some of the Byzatine nicknames did not leave much to the imagination. Basil II was referred to as "o Voulgaroktonos," (the Bulgar-slayer), owing to his propensity to murder the inhabitants of the northern borderlands, whereas Constatine VII, was referred to as "Porphyrogenitus" (born in the purple), as he was born in the purple birthing chamber where legitimate children of the reigning emperors were born. Casting aside toponymic nicknames denoting various emperor's ethnic origins such as Leo the Armenian and Leo the Khazar, one comes across absolute gems of nicknames such as that of the depraved emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetus (the slit-nosed, as his nose was cut off when he was dethroned), ruthless general Michael Lachanodrakon, (cabbage-dragon), writer John Mavropous (black-foot), the gorgeous diplomat Leo Choirosphaktes (slaughterer of the pigs) and his well-endowed brother in law and governor of Dyrrachium, Leo Rhabdouchos (possessor of the rod). To my mind however, the greatest of all the Byzantine nicknames are two. In second place comes that which is applied to the great theologian and saint of the Orthodox Church, Saint John as Chrysostomos - "he of the golden mouth", a fitting testament to his immense oratorical skill. Pausing for a moment to allow for the drum-roll, the undoubtedly greatest Byzantine nickname would have to be that given to the hapless emperor Constantine V as Copronyus - literally "the shit-named," as he reputedly defecated in his baptismal font. No other nickname I have heard matches this one, in savage intensity.
The interesting thing about Greek nicknames is that they are intended for use only behind the so-named victim's back. To refer to him by his sobriquet to his face is an insult. Unfortunately, it often is the case that the nickname is used with so much frequency that to the uninitiated, it appears as the victim's actual name. Just before my wedding, to illustrate the point, I sent an invitation to my cousin, in which I addressed her by her husband's surname Kakaras. Some weeks later, my cousin called to confirm her attendance. Just before she hung up the phone, she coughed nervously and said: "Just so you know, our surname isn't Kakaras. It's a nickname." My mortally embarrassed father then revealed my cousin's proper married name, one I had never heard, explaining that the sobriquet was earned by my cousin's father in law as a young boy, in a manner similar to emperor Constantine Copronymus.
That is not the only time I have put my foot in it. For reasons best known only to the inhabitants of my mother's village, one kindly uncle is referred to by the sobriquet "o Patsas." Answering the telephone as a young boy, I passed it on to my mother, telling her that "theio Patsa" wanted to speak to her. Having heard this through his receiver, he was decidedly unimpressed which caused my mother infinite embarrassment. It was from that moment on that I decided to make a list of the most interesting and often bizarre nicknames of the village, in order to safeguard myself from embarrassment and cause the least amount of offence possible.
The erstwhile president of the village, the august Mr Avgerinos, is referred to by all and sundry as Katsiapringas. I have absolutely no idea what this strange sounding word means, but would sacrifice all possibilities to earn a bizarre nickname in my own right to find out. Other village nicknames are quite innocent and refer to things that their subjects enjoy. For example, 'o Bouzoukas,' was named thus because he likes bouzouki music, and 'o Dirlandas,' because he enjoys that particular song. 'O Tsimouris,' however, was thusly named, as this means horsefly, and when he was young, his father scolded him for getting in his way, saying: "Stop hanging around me like a horse-fly." Some nicknames, which appear questionable to say the least in provenance, have entirely innocent explanations. "O Koitaxtis" earned his nickname, not, as one might think, because of a propensity to perve on people during their most private moments, but rather, because when a photo was being taken in the village, he would draw people's gaze to the camera by shouting: "Koitaxte, koitaxte!"
Proof that rather than re-hashing and perpetuating tired and threadbare nicknames that refer to a lifestyle in a village long gone, we are capable of coining our own here in the Antipodes, is one of the more recent nicknames given to an acquaintance, in order to adequately describe his propensity to grow lustrous and luxurious facial hair: Ayatollah. 'O Ayatollas,' introduced by an adult friend ignorant of his real name to others as 'o kyrios Ayatollas,' continues to be so named, despite having divested himself of his facial hair well over a decade ago.
William Hazlitt may have posited that "a nickname is the hardest stone the devil can throw at a man," yet their existence says more for the ingenuity, irreverence and ultimately, affection of those who create them than for the foibles of those upon whom they are foisted. Long may they reign and should any of you gentle readers, become sufficiently inspired as to coin a nickname for the diatribist, do not be afraid to share. For the compliment, most painstakingly crafted, shall be returned. Happy New Year!


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 January 2012