By Edward Walsh – Special for TSC
It was all because of my blond hair that I quickly acquired a nickname. At primary school in Cork I was known Snowball a name my mother liked and often used. Later at secondary college acquired yet another moniker and this time was often called Whitey.
In the UK the use of nicknames is pervasive – even Prime Minister Boris Johnson is regularly referred to as ‘Bojo’ in the press. Well known sports stars, TV commentators and others are often called by their nicknames. One time Arsenal and England centre half Tony Adams was known as ‘Donkey,’ BBC Radio 5 Live journalist Mark Chapman as ‘Chaffers,’ cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew is perhaps better known as ‘Agers’ while the now retired legendary football commentator John Motson is affectionately known and remembered as ‘Motty.’
If the British are good (and they are) at inventing and producing appropriate nicknames, then Argentines are past masters in the art. Living in small town rural Argentina was to be conscious of just how common was the every day use of nicknames. Small town life with its slow pace had its own distinctive rhythms and idioms. One met with some real larger than life individuals, whose sporting affiliation was nearly always tied with the great football clubs in Buenos Aires – Boca, River or San Lorenzo. A gentle physical giant of a man, shop keeper and merchant, Turco Nicolas Farah, alias ‘Colacho,’ whose parents came from Tripoli, Lebanon, and whose mother apart from buenos dias, buenas tardes, only spoke Arabic. There was the talented Gustavo Frederico Martinez alias ‘Cachilo’ assistant director of the primary school, also combined the roles of poet, orator, photographer, freelance journalist; his parents were retired teachers. Hospital Director, Dr Luis Alberto Caceres was known as ‘Polo’ but don’t ask me how come – for I have absolutely no idea why, when or how he came to be called ‘Polo.’
The familiar saying pueblo chico infierno grande was true. Generic nicknames – el gordo, el flaco, el negro, el loco – based on a person’s distinctive features or personality were common in every-day parlance. There were other somewhat unusual nicknames, Chiro, Carancho, Cijada, Colmena, Colacho, Cachilo, Pocho, Fernet, Pelusa, Portion, Gatcho, Teno, Go Go and Mati Venga
On enquiring about the name Fernet given to a particular shop keeper it was explained that like the aperitive he was “negro y amargo.”
Julio Cesar Figueroa was a well-known figure in town, his wife a primary school teacher. Of portly build, Julio worked in the ticket office in the local railway station. Always impeccably dressed, with highly polished shoes, a well-ironed starched shirt, panama straw hat and dark sunglasses were his every-day apparel as he headed off down the dusty unpaved street to the station. Impeccably dressed, never in a hurry, Julio proceeded to work and was aptly christened ‘Go Go’ for he was the very antithesis of anything even remotely associated with speed. It was always a leisurely saunter all the way from home to work.
But among those nicknames one stands out – ‘Mati Venga’ – alias Mateo Washington Pereira a highly qualified electrician who worked in the [usina] power station. The electricity schedule from 07.00 to 14.00 and 18.00 to 02.00 made life very tiring during summer months. Mati Venga as well as the other electricians and technicians alternated shifts but did not have to walk far from home to work as his house was next to the usina. When on day turn, and lunch was cooked and ready, his wife was accustomed to call her husband to come and dine with what became a familiar call ‘Mati Venga.’ The nickname stuck.