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Nisei Nicknames

Hamaguchi boys. Courtesy of Greenwood Museum.

In this day of hi-tech computer with iPhone, iPad, Galaxy, and so forth, whatever happened to the old fashion nicknames? Nowadays, you hear of famous athletes with nicknames like Burnsie, Burr, Marky, JJ, JR, or AJ. Quite vanilla, I think. There should be more “wasabi” injected into the present day nicknames.

Nicknames back in the ’40s and 50s were colourful, so much so that their real names were forgotten. In hockey, my favourites were: “Leaping Lou” Fontinato, Bronco Horvath, Rocket Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Clear the Track, Here Comes Eddie Shack, Turk Broda, Gump Worsley, and the Golden Jet Bobby Hull.

In baseball, there was “Whitey” Ford, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron, Lefty Grove, Pee Wee Reese, Mudcat Grant, and my best, Preacher Roe.

In football, there were great nicknames like Elroy “Crazy Leg” Hirsch, “Alley Oop” Owens, “Deacon” and “Too Tall” Jones, Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry, “Dirty 30” Jim Young, “Swervin’ Mervin” Fernandez, and “Night Train” Lane.

In basketball, of course we can’t forget “Wilt the Stilt” Chamberlain, “Iceman” Gervin, “Spud” Webb, “Magic” Johnson, “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins, Micheal “Air” Jordan, and “Dr. J” Julius Erving.

Boxing had great nicknames too. “Sugar” Ray Robinson, “Spider” Webb, “Rocky” Marciano, “Old Mongoose” Archie Moore, “Smokin” Joe” Frazier, and Jack “The Manassa Mauler” Dempsey.

Wrestling beats all of the above. What about names like “Haystack” Calhoun, “Abdullah the Butcher,” “Killer Kowalski,” “Whipper” Watson, and “Gorgeous” George?

We come to Nisei nicknames. At the beginning, Japanese names were very difficult to pronounce for teachers at Strathcona Elementary in Vancouver and Lord Byng Elementary in Steveston. Thus, to make them more “Canadianized,” the names were abbreviated. Tadashi became Tad, Takeshi was Tak, Masanobu (Mas), Shigeharu (Shig), Akihito (Aki), Hiroshi (Hiro), and Noboru became Nobby. Younger generation children find “Nobby” quite humorous since they think in terms of “Knobby.” Other Japanese names were easily translated to Anglo names: Joji (George), Ryoichi (Roy), Kensuke (Ken), and Hideki (Henry).

For the ladies, their names changed from Sumiko (Sumi), Kazuko (Kaz), Fumiko (Fumi), Kumiko (Kumi), Nanami (Nan), and Chieko (Chic). Then, Satoko became “Sugar”. Sa-toh is sugar in Japanese. Another Japanese nickname was “Kaminari”. This lady’s voice was so loud, people gave her that nickname. There was a girl who mimicked the Tarzan yell and clenched a rubber knife in her mouth and swam across the creek. Thus, Tarzan name stuck. My favourite, Kinuyo was changed to “Kinki”! Her granddaughter was so shocked that granny’s name was “Kinki”. I wondered what went through her mind?

Of course, it was common for boys to have nicknames. I heard nicknames from internment camps in the Slocan-New Denver area. They had names like “Oats”, “Nub”, “Stumpo”, “Mission”, “Hides”, “Sab”, “Nappy”, and “Mush”.

Greenwood was famous for nicknames and they became their unofficial first names. “Tickie” Higashi was always Tickie. Most thought that was his real name. In the obit, we found out his first name was Takashi. His nickname originated in Union Bay on Vancouver Island. This elderly man always saw Takashi riding his bike with a cardboard attached to his bike that made a “tick-tick” sound. Therefore, the old man called him “Tickie”. The name remained until he passed away.

My brother met a former Greenwood man at the casino, but he didn’t know what to call him. Very few people knew his real name. His nicknames were “Porky” and “Sho-ne”. My brother didn’t want to offend him so he didn’t know which name to use. Next day, we told him that it was Hiroshi.

These are some of the long list of nicknames in Greenwood: Fa-teh (Fat), Omonki (Monkey), Beko-cheen (High Forehead), Heh-no-naka (Inside Fart?), Pochinaga, Miso, and Bon-san. There were English nicknames too: Coyote, Slim, Barrel, Packrat, Pigeon, Wimpy, Popeye, Squeaky, Ben Gun, Hopalong, Stinka-sa, Shipe, Kik, Toots, and 8-Ball.

Greenwood Teenagers in the 1940s. Courtesy of Greenwood Museum.

“Kik” came from Kik Cola. This boy loved drinking Kik Cola. From the movie Treasure Island, there was a character Ben Gun who was sloppily dressed. This boy became Ben Gun but later it changed to Zen Gun since his dad’s name started with a “z”. “Barrel” came from barrel keg. Children used kindling wood for skis, but this boy brought a pair of barrel strips and that was like a Cadillac model to other kids, so he was called “Barrel”. This man, Kiyoshi, had two nicknames, “Coyote” and “Slim”. We know why the latter. Whenever he got excited, he would howl like a coyote! Thus, the name stuck. This one younger Nikkei teen started to grow a moustache but the best he could do was a wispy, Fu-Manchu growth. He looked more like Genghis Khan, so his friends called him Timojen. I was 8-Ball because my dad owned a pool hall, I was the eighth one in the family and I worked in the pool hall as a child. My brother’s nickname was 96. He was to holler the number of students at Sacred Heart School. Well, one student moved away to Grand Forks, so instead of 97, he shouted out 96, 96!

Some of the Japanese nicknames given were obvious, but this one boy got the name “Bon-san” (Bone-sun) because he wanted his haircut short so that he didn’t have to get another one for months. The boy looked like a Buddhist monk. Another boy wanted the same haircut, but he got the nickname “Omonki” because this lady walking along the sidewalk saw him and called him that name. In Japanese pronunciation “Monkey” is O-monki (O-mone-kee). I think “Miso” came from Naki-miso (Crybaby). In Japan, people say “Naki-mushi”.

My brother explained to me on how Gus got the name “Pochinaga”. Gus Ishida wanted to go with the men’s baseball team and while he was pleading, Jim Fukui, former Vancouver Asahi who was interned in Greenwood, replied in a joking way, “Ponchi Orai.” That somehow translated to Pochinaga.

It’s interesting finding out the provenance of names given to people. Sometimes, Nisei kids gave Caucasian folks nicknames too.

There was an old prospector in Greenwood who was well-known in the mining world. He lived alone in an old cabin by the ballpark. Whenever Vic Barrett walked uptown to shop for a few necessities, he would always buy Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. The Nikkei children found out that he was very generous. Therefore, most kids would rush to him like he was a rock star. The children would holler, “Gimme Gum, Gimme Gum!” Therefore, Vic was forever “Gimme Gum”. One could hear in the ’50s whenever a Nikkei child saw Vic, “Hey, there’s Gimme Gum!”

There was a lady named Flossy, and she dressed to the “9” whenever she went shopping. She wore these bright red high heel shoes. The Nikkei kids hanging around town would see her and shout out, “What a shoe!” Therefore, younger children thought that her name was “Wara-shu”.

Leonard Cowdrill was a former B.C. Security Commissioner in Greenwood. After war ended, he sold surplus goods in town and we called it a second-hand store. Most Issei had a difficult time pronouncing his name. My dad called him “Shiga-san”. Why? Mr. Cowdrill smoked cigars daily. Therefore, he was “Mr. Cigar” to the older folks. The younger children referred to his store as Cigar, “Let’s go to Cigar to buy canvas fishing bag.”

This is how some of the Nikkei children got their names. Hiromu came to play softball with the “Town Gang”. He was tiny for his age, so the older boys called him “Chikkoi”, in Japanese dialect. He was told to play shortstop and he must have done well because the boys started calling him “Chico” for Chico Carrasquel, the famous Chicago White Sox shortstop in the ’50s. That name has stuck even to this day.

In high school during the early ’60s, there was a boy named Mikio. The French teacher was new in town. He started asking the students’ names row by row. When it came to Mikio, he shyly whispered “Miki”. The teacher didn’t hear him clearly so he hollered, “Fifi?” Everyone laughed. Thus, the name stuck.

Why are nicknames not common these days? Is it not politically correct to call a First Nation hockey player like George “Chief” Armstrong, an African-American basketball player Robert “Chief” Parrish, or singer Antoine “Fats” Domino? Maybe, kids have such fancy names like Noah, Liam, Brittany, Cassandra, and Paris that they don’t need nicknames? Back in the old days, many of the children’s names were Jim, Joe, Bill, Bob, and Dave so they needed fancy nicknames to distinguish themselves from others? With Nikkei children, there was more of an identity with a nickname. Nevertheless, nicknames made life more fun and interesting. However, as we age, it is so difficult to address your friend you haven’t seen for a long time to greet him by his first name because his nickname was more popular in their childhood days. Yet, it doesn’t sound right to call your 70-ish friend, “Stinka” or “Toots”!

Popoff boys. Courtesy of Shirley Oye.


© 2017 Chuck Tasaka

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About the Author

Chuck Tasaka is the grandson of Isaburo and Yorie Tasaka. Chuck’s father was 4th in a family of 19. Chuck was born in Midway, B.C., and grew up in Greenwood, B.C. until he graduated from high school. Chuck attended University of B.C. and graduated in 1968. After retirement in 2002, he became interested in Nikkei history. (Profile photo courtesy of Nelson photographer)

Updated October 2015

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