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Gamlingay used to have one peculiarity that set it apart from other villages: virtually every man and boy had a nickname.
True, people in other villages had nicknames bestowed on them as well, but not, it would seem, to anything like the extent that it happened in Gamlingay.
An exclusively male phenomenon, such was the ubiquity and everyday use of nicknames in Gamlingay that often the only time a man’s christian name would be heard was within his family circle.
In fact it was not uncommon for a man's friends to remain completely unaware of his real christian name. More than that, nicknames could be passed down from father to son like a kind of family heirloom. Occasionally, an exception to the general rule would occur, and none of the male members of a family would be nicknamed - in itself, a distinguishing mark.
Nicknames have been around for a long as anyone can tell. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word itself was first recorded in 1440 and comes from the medieval word ‘eek’, meaning ‘also’. Over the course of time ‘an eek-name’ became ‘a nickname’.
The nicknames used in Gamlingay have few discernible origins. One or two were probably based on physical characteristics: Podgy, Greasy, Six-foot (who wasn't) and Shuffler, for instance. Some simply reflected a man's occupation, like Watercress (for an old man who collected watercress from the village brook and sold it), and some on an individual’s catchphrase, such as B’ns (given to the farm foreman who regularly ordered his men to pick them pibbles, b’ns and st’ns up from the fields).
No doubt the origin of nicknames like Donkey, Ferret, Cat, Stoat and Bunny came from either a physical resemblance to, or some kind of association with, a particular animal. But what of Moo or Dagger or Click, or Buster or Brassy? How to explain Teeny, Taddy, Sheddy or Knock? Or, come to that, Sticky, Flakey, Tweddle and Tank, never mind Seedy, Mooney and Mo?
Did Stinker stink, and Whistle whistle? Did Treacle harbour an all-consuming desire for treacle? Was Cheddar keen on cheese? Their roots may be embedded in truth or logic - of whatever haphazard or humorous kind - but in most cases, the reason behind the nickname is irretrievable, and just the name itself remains.
The majority of names seem to have developed from nothing more than an enthusiasm for the sound they made when spoken. Who could fail to be charmed by Squiddy, Bumble, Flitter, Boots, Tarky, Piffy, Co-co, Bebby and Shem? You can roll your tongue around names like Linkie, Doody, Darty and Diffy (the last two father and son), be impressed by Tuffen and Dillinger, bemused by Modge and Lowk.
Most of these nicknames are invented nonsense words, like Ickle, Spannel, Cropple, Dimper, Scorpy and Scaff. Possibly even their owners could not have told you where their nicknames came from. In some cases it helps to know the local pronunciation, so that Toot rhymes with soot, and Butch with hutch, but even then we are not much the wiser.
But why have nicknames at all (other than for the sheer fun of using them)? And why, in this village, so many? Perhaps, as one of Kenneth Williams’s characters in the radio comedy Beyond our Ken used to say, the answer lies in the soil. For until relatively recently Gamlingay was an agricultural village, and having a nickname confirmed a sense of belonging, especially among the rural working class, and perhaps to the larger village community as well. Nicknames also served to separate the locals from the outsiders who settled here. But at its simplest, it was a tradition, a self-generating process done because it always had been.
The practice, once universal, has all but disappeared, and the village playgrounds no longer ring with cries of Jinks! or Codger! or Flea! The Twittys, Gollys and Gegs of yesteryear have gone. And in a very minor way, it mirrors the disappearance from village life of much of its individuality and character.