Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

Nicknames from the Underground: Busharraf, Chillary, and Killadelphia

This is my latest column from the Malaysia Star.

The current political turmoil in Pakistan has turned up a curious bit of slang: Busharraf. It blends the names of Presidents Pervez Musharraf and George W. Bush. It shows that Musharraf is seen by his opponents to be a puppet for American political interests.

Nicknames like that are powerful. They describe who we have become, while given names reflect, perhaps, only what our parents wished us to be.

The current fad is blended nicknames, which mix two words together to make one. They work well because they are easy to understand. If you know the words they are made from, then you have a good chance at guessing their meanings.

For example, former US President Bill Clinton and his wife Senator Hillary Clinton, who is now campaigning for the presidency, are sometimes known as Billary or Hillbill.

Billary is a blend of their first names, Bill and Hillary. Hillbill is a blend of the same two names in a different order and with an added twist: add a y and it becomes hillbilly, which is a word used to describe backward and uncouth people from the Clintons’ home state of Arkansas.

Both Clinton nicknames reflect another fad of mixing the names of two people who are a power couple, especially two people who are rich, famous, and able to make things happen. The classic example (now several years and several relationships out of date) is Bennifer, which was used to describe the relationship of actor Ben Affleck and singer Jennifer Lopez.

Hillary Clinton, who is sometimes called unfeminine and overly businesslike, is occasionally called Chillary – a blend of chill and Hillary – by those who think she does not have a warm personality. Of course, if she were anything else, her critics would probably complain she was touchy-feely, which would be a criticism that she was soft and unable to withstand the rigours of the presidency.

Many cities and places take nicknames. My favourite is Sacratomato, which blends the name of the capital of California, Sacramento, with tomato, a plant which is grown near there in abundance.

Also in that state, sometimes known as Califunny (“funny” meaning weird or odd) and the land of fruit and nuts (fruit and nut being names for people who are weird or odd) is Eastlos or Easlos, a shortened form of East Los Angeles, long used by Spanish-speakers.

The movie business of Hollywood, California, has generated a slew of nicknames for other places. Bollywood everyone knows (the film industry of India, right?), but what about Nollywood, Wellywood, and Kollywood, referring to the film industries of Nigeria; Wellington, New Zealand; and Tamil-speakers?

One state away is Las Vegas (which in Spanish means “the fertile fields”), Nevada, that glitzy mecca of gambling and entertainment, known as Lost Wages for the many paycheques that have disappeared into its slot machines and roulette tables.

The city is also used to form other nicknames: Nash Vegas, for example, refers to Nashville, Tennessee, and Spoke Vegas refers to Spokane, Washington. The first because it has a lot of neon and cheesy (cheap and inauthentic) entertainment, like Las Vegas does; the latter for having casinos, also like Las Vegas does.

The -wood in Hollywood and the Vegas in Las Vegas are known as combining forms, meaning they can be used to make other words but don’t really have any meaning on their own.

Other nicknames use affixes: prefixes and suffixes, which go on the beginnings and ends of words.

London is sometimes called Londongrad by the new generation of rich Russians who have moved there. It uses the Russian -grad suffix, which means “town” in city names like Petrograd and Leningrad, two old names for St Petersburg.

Just outside of London, Heathrow Airport has long been called Thiefrow because of thefts of belongings from suitcases.

Dearborn, Michigan, where many Muslims and Middle Easterners have settled, is derogatorily called Dearbornistan. This uses the -stan suffix which means “place” or “land” and is found in place names like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In fact, all the countries ending in that suffix, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, are together nicknamed as the Stans.

Another nickname that uses that suffix is Trashcanistan, an unkind word which can refer to any poor Middle Eastern country or Central Asian republic.

But back to the blends. Nairobi, Kenya, is sometimes called Nairobbery, in reference to its high crime rate, while Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is called Killadelphia in reference to its murder rate.

That’s all from the Big Apple, Gotham, the Place So Nice They Named it Twice, New York, New York.

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Grant Barrett