'Everybody had nicknames' in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Reginald (Dutch) Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

Are nicknames as popular as they once were? Certainly in the early 1900s, people and families on P.E.I. had some colourful nicknames — some Gaelic and descriptive, others poetic and fanciful.

P.E.I. historian Reginald Thompson — better known by his own nickname, Dutch — interviewed Island seniors over the past several decades about life in those bygone days, and asked about the origins of their nicknames.

Art Doyle was nicknamed Blueberry, and was from the Mount Stewart area. So many people from the area had nicknames that the area itself got a moniker: the nickname capital of P.E.I.  

Doyle rhymed off the nicknames of some of the people he knew: Alec MacDonald was called Smoky, Percy Griffin was nicknamed Chick, and Jimmy McCormack was Chesty. Henry Romard was Toad, and Pius McCarthy was called The Boston Burglar.

The Mitchells were an interesting bunch: Art Mitchell was called Ugg, while Roy was Pontiac and Willard was called Sipadill. 

Doyles in the area had different nicknames too: Leonard Doyle was called Peirot, Desi Doyle was Johnson, and Joe Doyle was nicknamed Fuzzy.

Some of the names, like Fuzzy or Chesty, are based on physical attributes.

Blueberry Doyle's brother was the one called Fuzzy.

"He had lots of curls, his head was just a mess of curls when he was young, so that's how he got that," Doyle explained, while Chesty was indeed a man in the community with an impressive build and a prominent chest.

'Names given around the rink'

Most people got nicknamed when they were kids. Pius Griffin got the nickname name Doughhead when he was a boy playing hockey.

Pat Martel/CBC

"Apparently he was a fairly good hockey player, but if somebody set him up he'd always blow his chance to score," recalled Doyle. Doughhead Griffin ended up marrying Blueberry Doyle's own sister, he added with a laugh.

"They were just names given around the rink," said Doyle. "Everett Mitchell got Biddy — heaven knows why!"

The names weren't called behind their backs, Doyle said, but to their face. "If you met Biddy, you'd say 'Hi Biddy!'"

The man nicknamed The Boston Burglar was named after an Irish song of the same name he'd sing when he was drinking, Doyle said. 

And the nicknames persisted long past childhood. Doyle told Dutch someone had knocked on his door. "I said, 'Who's there?' and he said "It's Bojo, let me in!'" The nickname Bojo had been given to Harold Mitchell more than 50 years earlier. 

Nicknames almost figured into one of P.E.I.'s place names. In 1721 one of the earliest French administrators on the Island, Denys de La Ronde, tried to name what is now known as North Lake Harbour after his own nickname, Tranche-montagne — which at the time translated to mean "bully," Dutch said. However, it didn't catch on.

'Johnny Jim the bear killer'

Then there were people named for things they did. 

Dutch Thompson

"There was a MacDonald man, his people were in Nine Mile Creek, they were called Bear MacDonalds," recalled Rev. Donald Nicholson. He was born in 1906 and was a Presbyterian minister who preached all over the Island. He learned Gaelic from his great-grandparents, first-generation immigrants from Scotland.

"Evidently the grandfather met a bear in the woods and he killed the bear with a stick, and ever afterwards he was referred to as Bear MacDonald. All the descendants, in order to clarify which family they belonged to, it was the Bear MacDonalds," Nicholson said.  

"My father cleaned up all the bears on the Island. He was christened 'Johnny Jim the bear killer,'" said Robbie Robertson, who told Dutch his father killed at least 14 bears on P.E.I. Robertson was born in 1904 in Kingsboro, one of 14 children raised by their father after their mother died young.

"My father was a great hunter alright. He always carried a gun with him. The main thing was, they'd kill sheep," he said. "When they'd find a [sheep] carcass, they'd get my father. He'd climb a tree at night and wait for the bear to come, shoot the bear ... there was quite a trick to it."  

Dunkie Beag and other Gaelic nicknames

Some Scottish immigrants to the Maritimes came up with a system of differentiating all the branches of the ubiquitous MacDonald family. 

For people who had the Gaelic, they'd refer to me as Donald Seanie Beag Gall Eoin — that brings me four generations back: Donald, John, Donald, John. — Donald Nicholson

Dugald (Dunkie) MacDonald of Pictou County, N.S., explained his friend Dan Hugh Michael MacDonald was nicknamed after his father Hugh and his grandfather Michael. 

Dunkie's father was one of two Duncan MacDonalds attending the same school. Although "he wasn't a small man," Dunkie explained the other Duncan "was a monstrous big fella" — so they were nicknamed Big Duncan and Little Duncan. However the nicknames were in Gaelic: little Duncan became Dunkie Beag (pronounced something like "Bick").

Gaelic nicknames were very common on P.E.I., because right up to the 1920s some Island households still spoke Gaelic as their first language.

"For people who had the Gaelic, they'd refer to me as Donald Seanie Beag Gall Eoin — that brings me four generations back: Donald, John, Donald, John," explained Donald Nicholson, who himself still spoke Gaelic. His father's nickname had been Seanie Beag, even though he was far from small, and "strong as a bear" said Nicholson. 

Angus Gallant from Rustico got his nickname playing cards. Clarice Gallant grew up nearby and was 93 when she told Dutch the story of how card parties, known as "chicken raffles," had once been popular in the area — the winning hand of cards won a chicken, or at Christmastime, a goose. 

Dutch Thompson

Gallant was at a holiday chicken raffle and was "tense and anxious to win that goose," recalled Clarice. "He had the king of spades — that would be the card that would beat that hand — he put his hand down [and yelled] 'King! Goose!'"

From then on he was known as King Goose, and for many years his family was called the King Gooses, differentiating them from the many Gallants in the area.  

Dutch's personal favourite nickname was a man from Charlottetown who was nicknamed Rabbit because he liked to drive fast. However his last name was Partridge — the name Rabbit Partridge always makes him smile. 

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