Nicknames are commonplace in the RCN
Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 8 August 2022, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.
When a sailor first joins the Navy, they soon discover how people with certain surnames often carry a standard nickname, a tradition-bound moniker that was stuck to them the minute they joined the service.
Have you ever wondered why there is more than one “Dusty” Miller in the Navy, and for that matter, several “Nobby” Clarks? It’s because there is a standard nickname for those two surnames. Heck, only Nobby Clark’s mother, the paymaster, and maybe the Coxswain’s writer know Nobby’s real first name.
Sometimes the nickname is derived from something that resembles a word association test, giving us “Spider” Webb, “Rusty” Steel, “Frosty” Snow, “Shady” Lane, and the aforementioned “Dusty” Miller.
Another method of assigning nicknames is based on celebrities or famous people, which is how we get “Clark” Gable, “Doris” Day, “Henry” Ford, “Jesse” James, and “Artie” Shaw. Interesting, these are all personalities from decades past. Is there a “Katy” Perry in an HMC ship today? Probably.
Also, nicknames may be derived from fictional characters from popular culture, such as “Buck” Rogers, and “Buster” Brown, a comic strip character popular at the turn of the previous century, but adopted as the mascot of the Brown Shoe Company.
There are some commonly used nicknames where the derivation is not immediately evident, such as “Nobby” Clark(e). Sailors use this nickname, as it is traditional to do so, but may not realize its use was derived from the British. During the Industrial Revolution, commoners became wealthy, and decided to indicate their status by changing their surname. Smith became Smythe, Brown became Browne and Clark became Clarke. In the case of the Clarks, the commoners began to refer to them as “nobs,” which became Nobby Clarke.
Incidentally, “Nobby” is a popular nickname. Aside from Clark(e) it may also be used for White/Whyte, although “Knocker” is another common nickname for the surname White.
“Tug” Wilson is another commonly used nickname in the RCN. It is derived from the nickname given to the former Royal Navy First Sea Lord (1909-11) Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Kynvet Wilson, whose nickname came from an incident when he ordered a battleship to come alongside, but it failed. So, he offered her Captain a “tug” to help, and the nickname “Tug” stuck.
“Pincher” Martin was also derived from the RN. It was the nickname of Admiral Sir W. F. Martin (1801-95), well known for being a strict disciplinarian who “pinched” many sailors for even minor infractions.
“Sweeny” Todd was a well-known murderer from British literature, contemporarily made famous through books, plays and movies, and even a Canadian band named the same. You can bet “Sweeny” Todd the shipmate is a lot less exciting and probably a nicer person.
You may find examples of many more “Navy” nicknames in the book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).