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1. A descriptive name added to or replacing the actual name of a person, place, or thing.
2. A familiar or shortened form of a proper name.
tr.v. nick·named, nick·nam·ing, nick·names
1. To give a nickname to.
2. Archaic To call by an incorrect name; misname.

[Middle English neke name, from a neke name, alteration of an eke name : eke, addition (from Old English ēaca; see aug- in Indo-European roots) + name, name; see name.]

nick′nam′er n.



breadbasket Stomach, abdomen. This figurative slang term, whose literal origins are obvious, has been in common usage since the mid-18th century.

doughboy A U.S. Army infantryman. The exact origin of this colloquial term is unknown. It gained currency during World War I after seeing sporadic use during the Civil War. One of the many explanations for this term was put forth by E. Custer in Tenting on Plains (1887):

A “doughboy” is a small, round doughnut served to sailors on shipboard, generally with hash. Early in the Civil War the term was applied to the large globular brass buttons on the infantry uniform, from which it passed, by a natural transition, to the infantrymen themselves.

Another theory suggests a connection between adobe, a name used by Spaniards in the Southwest in reference to army personnel, and doughboy. The third most common explanation is that the infantrymen wore white belts, and had to clean them with “dough” made of pipe clay.

fire bug An arsonist, pyromaniac. In this expression, bug has the slang meaning of one who has great enthusiasm for something, in this case, for fire.

It is believed there exists an organized band of firebugs. (Pall Mall Gazette, September 12, 1883)

fly trap The human mouth. This disparaging term of obvious origin is often shortened to merely trap.

You can count on Angelo’s keepin’ his trap tight. (L. J. Vance, Baroque, 1923)

four-eyes A person who wears eyeglasses. The implication in this derisive expression is that a person has an extra pair of eyes by virtue of his spectacles. A similar expression, sometimes used by one who is putting on his eyeglasses, is putting on one’s eyes, implying that without the glasses, he is, in essence, blind.

fruit salad Colorful ribbons or buttons worn as campaign decorations; medals or badges which adorn the uniforms of servicemen. The infrequently heard expression is derived from the motley colors present in a fruit salad.

grass widow A woman whose husband is away for an indefinite, extended period of time; a woman who is separated, divorced, or living apart from her husband. The oldest use of the term, now obsolete, dates from the early 16th century. It referred to a discarded mistress. The expression gained currency in the United States during the California gold rush when it was used for the wives of the forty-niners. The popular theory that the term is a corruption of grace-widow ‘a widow by grace or courtesy, not in fact’ has been disproved by evidence of parallel forms in several other languages.

Grass widows in the hills are always writing to their husbands, when you drop in upon them. (John Lang, Wanderings in India, 1859)

Jack Tar An appellation for a sailor. This name apparently derived from the fact that sailors tarred their pigtails. Sailors were called Jacks as early as the 1600s and by association were called Jack Tars by the mid-18th century. Jack-tar can also be used attributively, as in the following quotation:

He had mixed it [brandy and water] on the Jack-tar principle of “half-and-half.” (William Schwenk Gilbert, Foggerty’s Fairy and Other Tales, 1892)

jock An athlete. This American slang expression is a shortening of jockstrap, the term for a supporter worn by men when participating in certain sports. It is most often applied to high school and college athletes, frequently with some degree of disparagement. In recent years the term has also been applied to females who actively participate in sports.

Rocks for jocks, elementary geology course popular among athletes at Pennsylvania. (Time, October 2, 1972)

limey An Englishman; a Briton. This expression is a variation of lime-juicer, a somewhat derogatory nickname applied to English sailors, referring to the British regulation requiring all merchant vessels to carry a supply of lime juice to be used as a preventative measure against scurvy. Since scurvy is caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C, regular doses of lime juice (rich in Vitamin C) pork chops were used to prevent the disease.

“English, eh?” said the manager. “I ain’t too keen on you limeys.” (J. Spencer, Limey, 1933)


the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street A popular British nickname for the Bank of England, located on Thread-needle Street. There is some confusion as to whether the epithet owes its origin to Gilray’s caricature (1797) depicting “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger” at a time when its financial solvency was in jeopardy, or to the essayist William Cobbett, who dubbed the bank’s directors the Old Ladies of Threadneedle Street because of their conservatism. In any event, the phrase was well known less than a century later when in Doctor Marigold’s Prescriptions (1865), Dickens referred to a bank note as:

a silver curl-paper that I myself took off the shining locks of the ever-beautiful old lady of Threadneedle Street.

old salt A sailor, particularly an old or experienced one; a sea dog. The allusion is to the salt in the seawater to which a sailor is constantly exposed.

If you want to hear about the sea, talk to an “old salt.” (Charles Spurgeon, Sermon XXIII, 1877)

Common variations include salt and salty dog.

one-armed bandit A slot machine used for gambling. These popular devices are operated by placing a coin in the slot and pulling down on a lever or “arm” on the side of the machine. Since the odds are fixed against the player, usually causing him to lose more than he wins, slot machines soon came to be known as “one-armed bandits,” and have been outlawed in most of the United States.

The machine that brought him from rags to riches was the notorious One Armed Bandit slot machine. (American Mercury, September, 1940)

See also lemon, FAILURE.

pork chops American slang for sideburns or side whiskers, from the similarity in shape to the cut of the meat.

Saturday night special An inexpensive hand gun that is easily obtainable through a gun store or a mail order house. While the origin of this common expression is not documented, Robert Blair Kaiser, writing in a February, 1974, issue of Rolling Stone, offers a plausible explanation of its derivation:

Since a great many of these purchases were made to satisfy the passions of Saturday Night, Detroit lawmen began to refer to the weapons as Saturday Night specials.

scrambled eggs The gold decoration on the bill of a military officer’s hat. The phrase’s denotation is sometimes extended to include other gold garnishes on the uniform, though these are more properly denoted by the slang term chicken guts. Because such embellishments are reserved for senior officers only, enlisted men occasionally use the expression for the high-ranking officers themselves.

Tommy Atkins The nickname given to a typical, low-ranking soldier in the British armed forces. In 1815, the British War Office issued a manual to all military personnel in which each soldier was required to enter certain personal data, such as name, age, and medals received. Enclosed with each manual was a sample guide in which the fictitious name Thomas Atkins was employed. Before long, the manuals themselves were called Tommy Atkins, and subsequently, the epithet acquired its current application to any British soldier, particularly privates.

Some years ago, Lord Wolseley … said “I won’t call him Tommy Atkins myself, for I think it a piece of impertinence to call the private soldier Tommy Atkins.” (E. J. Hardy, in United Service Magazine, March, 1898)

The British have extended the term’s application to include a private in any military force, or to the rank-and-file membership of a group or organization.

The Egyptian Tommy Atkins inspires one rapidly with feelings of sheer affection. (Francis Adams, The New Egypt, 1893)

Uncle Sam The personification of the United States; the American government, its prestige, or its citizenry.

The thirteen stripes turned vertically … thus indicating that a civil … post of Uncle Sam’s government is here established. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Introduction,” The Scarlet Letter, 1850)

This expression purportedly originated during the War of 1812, at Elbert Anderson’s provisions stockyard in Troy, New York, where all shippable items were stamped E.A.—U.S., for Elbert Anderson—United States. Through allusion to the yard’s chief inspector, Samuel Wilson, whose nickname was Uncle Sam, the workers suggested that U.S. actually stood for Uncle Sam. This epithet rapidly became a synonym for the United States, its usage being reinforced as a wartime rebuttal to Great Britain’s trademark of John Bull. In 1868, Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, depicted Uncle Sam as he is familiarly known today. From the Civil War onward, Uncle Sam has appeared on military recruitment posters throughout the nation. The term has maintained frequent usage as a fond name for the United States.

Let patriots everywhere … prepare to do the clean thing by Uncle Sam and his bald headed eagle. (Newton Kansan, June, 1873)

References in classic literature ?
They were honest, honorable men in their dealings, but the people had given them a couple of nicknames which were very suggestive--Herr Givenaught and Herr Heartless.
This much-enduring man had succeeded in banishing chewing gum after a long and stormy war, had made a bonfire of the confiscated novels and newspapers, had suppressed a private post office, had forbidden distortions of the face, nicknames, and caricatures, and done all that one man could do to keep half a hundred rebellious girls in order.
Zarathustra's habit of designating a whole class of men or a whole school of thought by a single fitting nickname may perhaps lead to a little confusion at first; but, as a rule, when the general drift of his arguments is grasped, it requires but a slight effort of the imagination to discover whom he is referring to.
In time he came to be liked, and well liked too; but by that time the nickname had got well stuck on, and it stayed.
how could you call him a nickname the very first time you ever saw him?
He seemed to have taken his head --round as a bullet--out of a box of marbles, and it is from that, I think, that his comrades of the press--all determined billiard-players--had given him that nickname, which was to stick to him and be made illustrious by him.
His very nickname, "Scratch," arose from a Berserker trick of his, in fighting, of tearing off his opponent's face.
Don't repeat that stupid nickname when you talk of my good friend, Richard Wardour.
These scattered tribes come, one and all, under the title of Nyam-Nyams, and this compound word is only a sort of nickname.
You are a Madame de Genlis and nothing more" (this nickname, bestowed on Vera by Nicholas, was considered very stinging), "and your greatest pleasure is to be unpleasant to people
He went over all the evidence for this supposition--her sudden interest in Hirst's writing, her way of quoting his opinions respectfully, or with only half a laugh; her very nickname for him, "the great Man," might have some serious meaning in it.
His name but I could never learn whether it was his real one, or a nickname that had grown out of his habits and success in life--was Gathergold.