Visitors to Wales will climb its mountains, sigh at its landscapes, love its beaches, enjoy excellent Wales-produced beverages, and taste a bit of its language. Still, they are likely to be missing out on one of the best things about Wales: the tradition of bestowing nicknames on people, sometimes deliciously sharp-witted inventions. But what is that sharpness like to live with?
The first Welsh nickname I remember hearing was Dewi Bungalow. I was very young, and assumed it meant Uncle Dewi lived in a bungalow. I thought ‘bungalow’ was a pretty word, and was much older when I realised it was intended to mean ‘nothing upstairs’. My first instinct was to laugh, swiftly followed by feeling badly about that. What’s it like to effectively be referred to as an idiot for much of your life by nearly everyone you know?
What’s in a name?
Until the 15th century, Welsh names were primarily patronymic. A patronym is a name based on that of the person’s father, grandfather, or even an earlier male ancestor. This is a global tradition, and even remains mandatory in some countries. In many countries, it became replaced over time by fixed patronymic surnames, as in the English family names Johnson and Robinson.
In Wales, the influence of England from the reign of Henry VIII onwards caused a gradual evolution to fixed surnames. The most common Welsh family names stem from the adding of ‘s’ to patronymics, as in Davies, Edwards, Griffiths, Jones, Roberts, and Williams. People joke about names like Evan Evans and Owen Owens, but they mean an ancestor once had that name, and it’s still viewed fondly in that family.
The challenges that result, however, are that it’s harder to trace female lines of ancestors, and there is a resulting small stock of surnames in Wales and abroad. Research commissioned by the Welsh government into the geography of Welsh names found those of Welsh origin among nearly 35% of the Welsh population, and 16.3mn people in the nations studied. Another challenge is that you can’t assume people are closely or even distantly related just because they share a surname.
The need for Welsh nicknames
Interestingly, there is also a small pool of surnames in South Korea. Around half the country shares just three surnames, Kim, Lee, and Park. I lived there for a number of years, yet found no evidence of widespread nicknaming aside from the same affectionate familial wordplay or schoolroom cruelties you can find anywhere. Traditionally, Korean children might be given a nickname as a way of tricking death into overlooking them, but the practice has largely died out.
In Wales, on the other hand, nicknames are both an expression of the playful and witty Welsh sense of humour, and are necessary to distinguish between people with the same name. This is done by reference to a number of factors, including residence, family trade, and personal characteristics.
Nick the Brick, Dai the Death, Dewi Bees, Jean the Hair, Pete the Post, Bob Beef, John Plank (his children all called Splinter) all have trades fairly easily guessed at. Laptop (a small PC), and Aladdin (lamp shop owner) perhaps require a bit more local knowledge.
Nicknames are not of course exclusively Welsh. Although actor, comedian, and writer Greg Davies was born in Wales to Welsh parents, he grew up in Shropshire and worked as a teacher in England for years. He does a bit about nicknames because they’re funny, and connected to school experiences. But you can’t help wondering if they aren’t also steeped in his household’s culture.
The culture of nicknaming has spread far beyond Welsh villages. Everyone living in Wales knows that every bus driver is called ‘Drive’, and is to be thanked when leaving the bus. Welsh rugby players have nicknames. Cardiff residents will likely remember Queen Street crooner Toy Mic Trev. Entire Welsh football teams have nicknames. Dawn French bestowed a nickname on Catherine Zeta Jones, even though it’s the latter who’s Welsh. Oh, no, wait, Dawn was born in Holyhead. There you are, then.
Welsh nicknames go back a long way, and will often have you in fits. Former player and now rugby coach Dai Young is often known as Live Fast Dai Young. His rugby player son Thomas Young is just called Younger. Dai the Bus had a son inevitably called Mini. There was a David Evans with a son of the same name. When Evans Senior died he became Evans Above; you can even get a nickname when you’re gone.
I’m back to thinking about Dewi Bungalow, and wondering how he felt. How Mrs Davies Lamppost liked being called that just because it distinguished her from other Mrs Davieses on her road. Those whose nicknames are based on having been burnt, or lost a body part (it’s hard to know the truth behind stories of Dai 18 Months, missing half an ear). The ones whose nicknames are from something their Dad did, or even their great-great-great-grandfathers.
Are these names sometimes a restrictive burden? Or is there comfort in the familiarity? Welsh nicknames are interesting, clever, and amusing enough to be written about regularly in Welsh newspapers. But people usually leave names that they know of in the comments, rarely saying what it’s actually like to have one.
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