The Weird World Of Military Nicknames
It’s common enough in civvy street, but it seems that it’s definitely standard issue in the British military. For decades, service personnel have had their names changed the moment they’ve arrived at their first military unit. Usually by a smart-alec superior.
 
Of course the fresh-faced recruit is too junior to protest, if s/he even understands the black humour behind their re-christening. The nickname may stick with them for the rest of their career, and will be used all the more if it particularly upsets the poor soldier / sailor / airman lumbered with it. It may stick with them for the rest of their life: I’ve heard many tales of only mothers still persisting in calling their sons by the name they chose for them; to everyone else they have become what the Army redesignated them. For good.
 
1st Battalion The Irish Guards are pictured lining up on parade
1st Battalion The Irish Guards are pictured lining up on parade
 
Regimental nicknames and terms of endearment used in the military for their brethren in other branches are another matter entirely – and could become a whole separate slanging match – so we’ll save that article for another time. For now, let’s look at the reasons unsuspecting servicemen and women have had their perfectly ordinary name altered as they’re being issued with their first items of uniform. 
 
Corporals’ and Sergeants’ prerogative.
 
They had it done to them, so Non-Commissioned Officers who have risen a few ranks enjoy payback time, inflicting ridicule on those they have earnt the privilege of bossing around. Your surname may be long or difficult for them to pronounce, so you’ll be subject to the rather drastic abbreviation applied to many Fijian and other Commonwealth family names.
 
A young RAF recruit smiles on parade at RAF Halton
A young RAF recruit smiles on parade at RAF Halton
 
It may happen that there’s another person in your unit with the same last name, so to distinguish you apart, you may get a nickname. But in an infantry battalion made up of guys from the Welsh Valleys, for example, there can be many members with a common name. At that point, the last few digits of the soldier’s service number are employed as a distinguishing feature. “Jones 141” or “Evans 83” makes things a little clearer.
 
 
Former members of the military like to reminisce about these days in online forums. One of the more repeatable tales on the Army Rumour Service’s website goes like this:
 
“Best I ever met was a Sergeant Kennedy nicknamed EDY. Legend had it that he had rocked up at the regiment as a shiny new Trooper and presented himself to the guardroom. The Guard Sergeant had looked at the scrawny young man and asked
"name?"
"Kennedy, Sergeant" came the reply
"last three?” asked the Sgt
long pause, followed by
"E-D-Y, Sgt?"
20 years later, he's still known as EDY.”
 
Military nicknames frequently replace a person’s Christian name for that of a famous person, with whom they share a last name. Someone called Black becomes “Cilla”(especially if they’re male); Barker is “Ronnie”; Gordon attracts “Flash”. 
 
Further examples include “Nobby” for anyone named Clark or Hall; “Buck” if your last name is Rogers, “Perry” if it’s Mason and either “Burt” or “Debbie” if it’s Reynolds. Not forgetting Dicky Bird, Chalky White, Smudge Smith, Dinger Bell, Swampy Marsh, Grassy Meadows, Snowy Winter and Happy Day.
 
A Royal Navy gunner shares a joke with a Royal Marine
A Royal Navy gunner shares a joke with a Royal Marine
 
Sometimes it’s obvious. It may be defined by where the person comes from. Jock / Geordie / Scouse / Taff. Sometimes it’s ironic. Short people are nicknamed lofty. So are tall people (unless they’re called Tiny, Titch, or Stretch.) It gets ruder too: from “Pathfinder” because the (officer) can’t read a map, to Foggy if he’s not very bright. A few choice selections from the Army Rumour Service:
 
Leatherman – his colleagues found him a complete tool 
Delmonte - because he always said yes, even to the unappealing tasks
Thrombo (short for thrombosis) – a slow moving clot
 
Of course, names are derived from something memorable the serviceperson has done in their career. Generally these will be the events he or she would prefer to forget, and have difficulty glossing over with a passable explanation to those who ask them how they came to be called something so intriguing or cryptic.
 
There are the derogatory sobriquets (specially reserved for superiors), with General Sir Mike Jackson, the former head of the Army, earning “POD” during his time in command of the First Battalion the Parachute Regiment. Jacko is said to have revelled in the title, which was short for “Prince of Darkness”.
 
Gen Sir Mike Jackson. Picture: Albany Associates
Gen Sir Mike Jackson. Picture: Albany Associates
 
“I was on my first ever combat fitness test as a Territorial Army soldier - 17 year old me with a Bergen twice the size of me on my back, as I'm only short.
The Regimental Sergeant Major pops up out of nowhere (regular soldier like a god amongst us mere mortals). 
“What's your name? How long have you been in TA?” he asks.
I was panting and just managed to get my name out (Bowser).
The man laughed, “You’re not big enough to be a proper bowser” and the nickname “Jerrycan” was born. It's followed me around ever since.”  
 
Some names are handed down through history, with even modern military members baffled as to why someone with the surname of Wilson is default-nicknamed “Tug”. They just are.
 
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson
It is, in fact, drawn from the actions of a former First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson. In the battle of El Teb in 1884, the Admiral repeatedly ordered a battleship to try and come alongside, and in exasperation he offered the ship’s captain a tug, to assist. He went down in history as “Tug” Wilson, and all Wilsons in his wake.
 
I’ve also met a “Cakey” Eccles, a “Window” Sills, and Ghandi - an American pilot, so-called because on each of his deployments, the conflict seemed to come to a peaceable ending and he was sent home again. 
 
Let us know your nickname and how you earned it…