Tom, Dick and Harry.jpg

Tom, Dick and Harry

By June Lover [email protected]

After 35 years in the TV and film industry, June Lover retired to the Algarve in 2006.  Having owned a holiday property here for 12 years she now lives in the hills above Almancil.

I have often wondered why we Brits have this compelling urge to mess about with people’s names. Not only that, we sometimes use these names to describe certain groups of people.  Tom, Dick and Harry are an obvious example. 

There doesn’t seem to be any explanation as to why Thomas, Richard and Harold had their names abbreviated and then used to define a set of everybodies, somebodies and nobodies.

Richard and Harold were kings, which hardly puts them in these categories, and Thomas was a tank engine, so I really can’t see the logic.

Why not Dave, Steve and Gazza? Too modern perhaps? Okay – let’s try Bert, Bill and Alfie.  Could these Royals lend their names to categorise all and sundry? Apparently not.

And then there’s Paddy, Jock and Taffy. Once again these are descriptive labels and we all know exactly who we mean when we refer to one of them.

Paddy, I know, is short for Patrick. But where do Jock and Taffy come from? Apart from Scotland and Wales that is. And where’s the Englishman in all this? Just a plain old Englishman.

Further abroad, some talk about the Frogs, Yanks, Krauts, Poms, Ruskies, Eyeties.

So what are we? Limeys apparently. Derived from 18th century British sailors who drank lime juice to ward off scurvy. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

But I digress. It’s peoples’ names and what we do with them that fascinates me. We just have to mess about with them.

Give a child a name and there seems to be a desperate desire to shorten it. Just think about some of your family and friends for a moment. I bet you’ve got a Sue, a Pete, a Jacqui, Di, Phil, Jan, Rob, Pam, Don, Fran, Chris, Stan, Nick, Alex, Jo, Sandy, Cilla, Maggie.

Or maybe you’ve got a PJ or a CJ. We’ve got an AJ. Where do you stop?

There was a brief spell when parents did their best to avoid ‘handle abuse’ by giving their children the shortest names possible. Ann, John, James and Charles. But the whole thing just went into reverse, so you got Annie, Johnny, Jamie and Charlie.

If we can’t abbreviate it, we’ll lengthen it.  Sure as eggs are eggs, we’ll fiddle about with it somehow.

Talking of Charlie, what did poor old Charles do to earn the label ‘a proper Charlie’?  Why not ‘a proper Freddy or Reggie’?  And then there’s Michael.  He must be really fed up being referred to as a means of poking fun at people. Was this before or after Walter D turned him into a cartoon mouse?

My knowledge of the Portuguese language is, as you know, pretty minimal. So by way of a diversion I thought I’d try and find out if similar nicknaming happens here.

I already know that my tutor’s name, Guida, is short for Margarida. My cleaner’s name is Maria Leonor, but prefers to be known simply as Leonor.

This is when I discovered that most girls’ names begin with Maria – even Guida is Maria Margarida. Quite a mouthful. No wonder she calls herself Guida, although I think it’s a lovely name. A lot more fun than June.

João is the Portuguese equivalent of the English John. You can’t do much with that.  Nelson, Jorge, José, Nuno, Pedro, Fábio, Paulo, Joaquim, Tiago, Marco are all popular boys’ names – there’s not much you can do with them either.

Even David, because it’s pronounced Dahveed, can’t really be altered. 

You may notice that some of these names end in -o, so perhaps there’s no need to mess about with them. Similarly, many girls’ names end in -a, and although there’s often a strong resemblance to English names, the pronunciation is different.

Of my Portuguese girlfriends, I know a Sandra, Vera, Susana, Dora, Andreia, Luísa, Natália, Carina, Filipa, Carla, Teresa, Sofia, Elsa, Sabina, Bárbara and Helena.

In fact, I’m struggling to find a girl’s name that doesn’t end in -a. With the exception of Leonor of course, which is really bizarre because the English equivalent is Leonora. 

Then I began to wonder if different regions of Portugal had different nicknames just as we have in England. Brummies, Scousers, Cockneys, Geordies, even Yellow-bellies.

Where do these names come from? Do we ever question their origin? Or do we just use them because they’ve always been there?

So when we refer to a Paddy, a Jock or a Taffy, do the Portuguese understand who we’re talking about? Amazingly, some of them do.

The Alentejo, just upstairs from here, is a huge ‘county’ stretching from the west coast to the Spanish border. So is there a name for someone who hails from this neck of the woods?  Alentejan would be the correct description I suppose, but it’s hardly a bundle of laughs and certainly not a nickname. Similarly, someone from Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra, Faro, Albufeira, Portimão, Madeira, The Azores. What are they called? Do they have a nickname?

And what about the GNR? In England we refer to our coppers as the ‘Old Bill’. I can see where ‘copper’ comes from, but the Old Bill is a mystery.

There are a number of theories including King William IV whose constables were an early form of police, a combination of Bill Bailey of music hall fame and the Old Bailey of criminal court fame, and the registration letters BYL used on the flying squad’s original vehicles which led the squad to be known as ‘the Bill’. 

All of these are as plausible as they are unlikely, but it doesn’t answer my question about the GNR. Is there a nickname for them? Apparently there is. Bófias!

It means cops, although I’ve never heard it used. Have you ever heard anyone say “here come the bófias” or “I got stopped by the bófias for speeding on the EN 125”?  *

This would have been my word of the month had it not been for Sir indoors, the biggest culprit of all when it comes to messing about with names and words, especially Portuguese ones.

He rechristened them ‘the biffos’ which, I have to admit, is easier to remember due to happy memories of the ‘Beano’. I think it might catch on. “Look out!  Here come the Biffos!”

We Brits have nicknames for just about everyone. An electrician is a ‘spark’, an overweight person is a ‘fatso’, a wealthy person is a ‘moneybags’ and a person who wears spectacles is a ‘four-eyes’.

And it doesn’t stop there. Everyday items don’t escape. We use a ‘brolly’ when it rains, we drive a ‘set of wheels’, we wear ‘shades’ when it’s sunny, and the cat’s turned into a ‘moggy’. How the Portuguese ever learn to speak English is a constant source of amazement to me.  We don’t give them much help, do we?

I went onto a nicknaming website to see what, if anything, could be done with my own very plain monosyllabic name. I’ve never really forgiven my parents for naming me after the month I was born in – not very original.

It came up with ‘Groovey Bon-Bon’. Can you believe that? So then I added my surname which is slightly more unusual, and it came up with ‘Groovey Hot-Bon-Bon’. This is getting silly now.

Let’s go back to Tom, Dick and Harry for a moment. I know all three of them and they’re really great guys.

Not one of them is an ‘insignificant person’, so it still baffles me as to why we don’t use their proper names.