What's in a name?

IT was a conundrum that obviously had long been puzzling my friend because he took me to one side and discreetly posed his question about my fellow members of the so-called Fourth Estate.

IT was a conundrum that obviously had long been puzzling my friend because he took me to one side and discreetly posed his question about my fellow members of the so-called Fourth Estate. “Is Don a pet name given to journalists?”

He explained that he knew three or four Dons in my vocation and wondered if it was their real first name or just a way of defining their job, although appreciating that it might have caused confusion in a hectic newsroom if somebody shouted: “Don!” and several voices answered in chorus, “Yes. What do you want?”

I assured him they all were named Donald and born in the Twenties and Thirties. And, as offhand I could think of no celebrity from yesteryear with that name, apart from suave Hollywood leading man Don Ameche (screen debut, 1936), I whimsically suggested that perhaps their parents were inspired by Walt Disney's famous duck (created in 1934) .

A quick tally-up revealed that I knew at least half a-dozen past or present colleagues named Don, among them Don Mills, a much revered Yarmouth Mercury assistant editor in the postwar era until his untimely death perhaps 30 years or more ago.

That quick check, without any deep brain-searching on my behalf, came up with the surnames of my other Don colleagues linked to the company now known as Archant: Black, Rudd, Simpson, Stanley, Urry and Vear. I wondered how many other Dons I could have listed if I had sat down with pencil and paper in a quiet room and concentrated on names and faces from the past...

Had that inquisitive chum - let us call him John Smith, for the sake of illustration - moved to Spain and bought a home in the sun, in common with hundreds of other Brits in the Eighties and Nineties, he might have been more bewildered to find that on the legal documents he would be described as “Don John Smith”. The “Don” more or less translates to our respectful “Sir”, as in Dear Sir.

Most Read

Also, consistently successful skippers engaged in our long-gone herring fishery - and trawling too - were known as “don skippers”…

One of my cinematic heroes during my boyhood in the war was not a blockbuster epic star but the modest Don Winslow of the Navy, a serial screened at Gorleston Coliseum featuring two American officer buddies, usually immaculately clad in their white duck uniforms and based on a Pacific island (probably Hawaii), who overcame various baddies on palm-fringed shores and battled underwater with giant octopi and sharks.

Don Winslow was played by another Don - Don Defore whosed buddy was Red Pennington (Walter Sande). Their serialised adventures before Pearl Harbour changed everything were far more exciting than Junior G-Men of the Air or other Dead End Kids offerings at the dear old “Coli”.

You couldn't keep a good Don down, although it is one of the popular names from the past that is seldom bestowed on a new-born son today; Donald was absent from the 2009 birth announcements column in the Mercury, and has not broken the duck in 2010 either.

Among the large fishing communities in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, and coastal villages like Caister and Winterton, in the halcyon herring decades, it was surnames that caused identity problems, not Christian names. In that era, big families predominated, so there could have been confusion if reference was made to Mr Green or Mr Haylett, for example, because there were a lot of Mr Greens and Mr Hayletts.

All of which explains the widespread use of nicknames although there was some duplication that occasionally posed a potential hazard.

Certainly Winterton was a hot-bed of nicknames, as confirmed for me many years ago by a couple who originally hailed from that village, John and Zelia Green, who had sat down one evening and compiled a list of more than 100; not all were fishermen but they pointed out that “most Winterton men went to sea”.

As these nicknames were usually spoken, not written, some of the spellings are a mixture of phonetic and guesswork.

Green: Blunt, Bob the Devil, Buss Hoss, Crow, Cuffley, Doll Dick, Dutch, Lightweight, Lumpen, Mule, Poley Dick, Pompey, Razey, Sunderland Jack, Wee.

Larner: Batten, Bunty, Funky, Liver, Popney, Rusty, Spindle, Torfer, Whelks.

Goffin: Brack, Cazzey, Choke, Dibby, Flat, Fookbut, Mute, Redhot, Stinger, Toll.

George: Bunny, Chivey, Cuddy, Punch, Social, Starchy (applied to both Eddie and Jack).

Sheales: Chulls, Darkie, Lipton, Matty, Shylock, Walnut.

Powles: Brassy, Ludo, Mease, Prodigal, Rush, Whisker, Whoops.

King: Lighty, Lion, Tiger, Waxey.

Brown: Cockerel, Deaner, Mangle, Tewshy, Weasel.

Smith: China, Smout, Twist, Willukes.

Kettle: Bundust, Dardler, Salisbury.

Cunningham: Chicken Fry Brown, Twick (Walter and Herbert).

Dyble: Dozzel, Matt, Sloegram, Tash.

Wacey: Chitty, Lux, Mow.

Hodds: Block, Brindy, Do-oe, Fuzzy, Pamp, Roker, Sugarloaf, Tibby, Tuscan.

Haylett: Ridler, Shammy, Shawnee, Wimble.

Bowgen: Fizzle, Riar, Shepherd of the Hills.

Also, there were Bunts Jones, Bo Allen, Blunt Woodhouse, Chisel Dick Watson, Chuff Hewitt, Danky Annison, Dewross Page, Danky Rudd, Dongo Varley, Mooney Hovell, Puxley Utting, Riar Bowgen, Rikki-Tikki Arkwright, Sheckles Grey, Terrible Powles, Tipler Symonds, Taylor Popay…

A man with widespread personal knowledge of our long-decunct and oft-mourned herring fishery is John Ball, of South Garden in Gorleston, son of a respected skipper and boat-owner. Occasionally he gives talks to organisations, and these sometimes include the topic of nicknames.

His list of examples includes Stanley Hewitt (Bounty), certainly one of the port's elite don skippers; Caister's Mabby, Mangle, Lightning and Raffy Brown; Flat Goffin; Split Pin, Coddy and Smasher Harris; Shammy Haylett, Shinny Parker; Geesh, Roper, Rouse, Shell and Eel (Caister Georges); Scratchy Barnes; Kruschen, Laddy and Pym (Bush); Scuddy and Rarks (King); Blackeye Soanes; Blow Claxton, Pretty Peek, Skins Goodings, Blucher Knights, Shelly Blowers, Old Mun Bensley, Ernie (Plum) Bullock…

There are one or two others which sound too rude or derogatory to be mentioned here, although they were probably innocent enough.

Although it might well be the case that nicknames are still in prolific use in the villages, somehow I would doubt it - the practice has probably dwindled or even disappeared except in the odd exceptional family.