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What’s in a (nick)name?

No less an historian than the great Geoffrey Blainey has investigated the subtleties of the humble nickname, as Michael McCarthy explains.

The works of the great historian and National Living Treasure Geoffrey Blainey AC (OW1947) are both illuminating and heartening. They are well worth reading, especially if you have ever been a Methodist or even a part Methodist like me (my father began life as a Catholic): he must be one of Methodism’s best products, in Australia or indeed the world.

Blainey boarded at Wesley from 1944. In his autobiography, Before I Forget, he writes that all the boarders and resident masters had to have a nickname. These included ‘Plug’ – the housemaster, Mr Kennedy, ‘Tiger Pete’ – a kindly and inwardly wounded First World War veteran, ‘Milky,’ ‘Narse,’ ‘Brandy-Faced Jack,’ ‘Hopalong’ and ‘Joe Blow.’ Other teachers were ‘Biddy’ Eastaugh, ‘Fido’ Gwillim, ‘Tosh’ Phillips, ‘Stumpy’ Hughes and ‘Dick’ Belshaw.

I recall that by 1953 some of these nicknames had changed. ‘Milky’ Milne, ‘Narse’ Lesser and ‘Tosh’ retained their names, but ‘Plug’ had become ‘Bod,’ ‘Brandy-Faced Jack’ was now simply ‘Jack’ and ‘Tiger Pete’ may have become ‘PL’ Williams – an extremely tolerant and popular master who was said to have a ‘bung lung.’ Belshaw had acquired the nickname ‘Baldy,’ which did not please him. I don’t recall the tall ‘Stumpy’ Hughes, but there was a tall ‘Stiffy’ Hulme; could they have been the same?

In the 1950s, masters’ nicknames were either their forename in formal or less formal form – Leigh Cook, Percy Gare, Alan Mitchell, Ken Merry, Jack Rush, Morrie Williams, Harry Trainor, Fred Potts, Bill Schuster, Georgie Lightfoot, Jerry Hattam – or something more creative – ‘Hisser’ Humphries, ‘Doc’ Steininger, ‘Titch’ White, ‘Lop’ Martindale, ‘Spes’ Secomb, ‘Breath’ Brown, ‘Bonny’ Franks, ‘Tit’ Dodd, ‘Doover’ Du Vé, ‘Hava’ Gess, ‘Charlie’ the Chaplain (aka Rev VTL Roberts). They could be both semi-formal and creative – LLE Newnham was ‘Lou’ and ‘Stringy.’ Our impressive headmaster, WH Frederick, was ‘The Boof’ – a nickname presumably arrived at by expanding The Head to The Boofhead and then contracting it again. His admirable successor, Dr TH Coates OBE was simply Tom.

Doc had a tender theory about nicknames. He had found a boy’s diary in which were written nicknames against the list of masters. When Doc returned the diary to its owner, he asked, ‘Why have you written “Doc” against my name?’ ‘Because you are a doctor, sir,’ he replied.’ Steininger was a Doctor of Laws of the University of Vienna.

‘Please boys, listen to that,’ Doc said.

‘I think if boys have a nickname for a master, they like him. And, boys – in this diary – there was one master who didn’t have a nickname.’

Michael McCarthy (OW1957) is an avid protector of Wesley history, son of the much-admired first Principal (1961 to 1972) of the then newly independent Elsternwick MLC, Joyce McCarthy, and a regular contributor to Lion.

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