Vague Identities: What’s in a Nickname?

What’s in a name? How closely is your given name tied to who you really are? This fun piece ran in the February 2015 “Tribe” issue of our Coast Mountains magazine and is a great examination of an odd natural phenomena that seems to occur in mountain towns everywhere. People arrive and fall into new identities, new roles and new, often cringeworthy, names. Take it from me, I know. – Feet Banks, editor


Vague Identities

Punchy? Bushrat? Man Wagon?! — Does anyone have a real name in a mountain town?

By Pat McKinnon

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Illustrations by Dave Barnes
Illustrations by Dave Barnes

In 1989 the resident Grade 6 alpha-male at my new elementary school decreed that I was henceforth to be known as “Patches”, and the nickname caught on faster than Milli Vanilli. In high school I was christened “MacTavish”, after the legendary helmet-less Edmonton Oilers grinder, Craig MacTavish, because of the strikingly similar nature of our tightly coiffed ginger-blonde curls.

Then, over the next decade, aside from the obvious corruptions of my given name (Patrice, Patricio, Patty, Patty Mac), I managed to live a nickname-free existence….until I moved to Whistler, where, within an astonishingly brief amount of time, I inherited a heaping handful of new handles, including White Lightning, Man Cat, and Party All the Time. And I wasn’t the only one. Whistler is a place where iconic nicknames are crafted, earned, and given, often with lingering lifelong consequences. This beloved local custom was best exemplified In John Zaritsky’s 2001 Whistler ski-culture documentary film, Ski Bums — where the world was introduced to such legendary characters as Johnny Thrash, Crucial Mike, and Red-Eye Lisa — but shedding an old name and starting anew has been a fixture of the town’s folklore throughout its history.

One of these artist renderings may or may not be employed by Mountain Life.

In Whistler, nicknames are often derived from one’s physical attributes, personality traits, lifestyle habits, or place of origin. Sometimes they are used to embody spirit animals or personify drunken alter-egos, while other times they’re created in the aftermath of specific tales of misadventure. Unfortunately, unlike the glamourous epithets we bestow upon our idols, these manufactured monikers often illustrate our less-flattering qualities or commemorate events that we’d rather have forgotten. You’re unlikely to be dubbed “The Great One”, for your pow-shredding prowess, but if you happen to a single year older than the rest of your friends, you’ll be forever knighted as “Old Balls”. Or, if you have the misfortune of requiring a helicopter rescue to get yourself out of a poorly chosen ski line, you’ll quickly become immortalized as “Chopper Steve”. I once even went on an epic two-day mountain bike ride in the Chilcotins with a crew that included a guy who we knew only as “Shit Pump” (I still have no idea what his real name is).

However, despite their potentially undesirable nature, nicknames are fundamentally about being included and gaining acceptance within a community. “Nicknames are ancient and must have existed as long as human beings have walked the earth,” says Paul Peterson, a global scholar of anthroponomastics (the study of human names) from the University of Minnesota. “The main reasons for giving nicknames in small societies are to create a sense of community, to bond with one another, and to mark out one’s individual qualities in relation to an inside group. Nicknames distinguish an individual’s unique differences by applying a kind of tag to replace or supplement the person’s first name. Some nicknames are insulting, but even among these the context can be a friendly taunt.”

To protect the innocent (and the guilty) artist renderings on this page may or may not resemble the actual people behind each nickname.

So, even though you might have to live with being called Squirrel, or Foxy Butthole, or The Beaver Zombie, take solace in knowing that your new identity signifies that you have officially been woven within the fabric of this remarkable “Land of Misfit Toys” that we call home. This bizarre blend of ridicule and affection is actually our way of saying that we like you and that you belong here as part of our clan. Even you, Shit-Pump.