• Daniel Ethan Finneran


November 2017

Nicknames, epithets, cognomens, and sobriquets. In the span of one short year, President Trump has made their application popular again. Some are witty, others trite, and most leave you wanting. He’s given us gems like “Little” Marco Rubio and “Big” Luther Strange. A diminutive deserves its superlative, I suppose. He charted the culture and found “Rocket Man” and Al “Frankenstein”—doubtless homages to Sir Elton John and Ms. Shelley. He labelled a political opponent, “Lyin’” Ted and a nagging pundit, “Psycho” Joe. He concocted “Crazy” Bernie and Megyn and “Crying” Chuck. Sure, he double-dipped with the “crazy”, but he made up for it with a stroke of alliterative flare when he called Florida’s Frederica Wilson, “Wacky Congresswoman Wilson”. He’s gotten himself into trouble for calling Elizabeth Warren, “Pocahontas” and Mika Brzezinski, “Dumb as a Rock Mika”, but we can’t forget the nickname he’s succeeded in tattooing on the nation’s consciousness. That, of course, is the indelible “Crooked” Hillary Clinton.

While Trump’s designations are usually demeaning, history has made use of them in different ways. Thumb through the centuries, and in each you’ll find a few that catch your eye. Beginning in the earliest of epochs, we find a name like Plato, and accept this to have been the great philosopher of the forms’ name at birth. Not so, says an ancient genealogy and a fragmented familial ancestry. Plato as we know him is said to have been born Aristocles, a name quite near that of a later pupil of his own. It wasn’t until his robust frame and all-encompassing mind developed that a wrestling coach deemed his and Athens most spectacular student-athlete Platon, or “broad”.

Earlier still, we stumble upon Xerxes the Great and his forbearers Darius and Cyrus. Lest you think Xerxes somehow stood above the rest, all were given the nickname, “The Great”. Xerxes was fourth in a succession of Achaemenid kings who came to dominate Persia and the Middle East. So ambitious and insatiable was his empire’s sprawl that he tried his luck across the Aegean in Greece. There, first at Thermopylae and then at Salamis, his avarice and his numbers failed. Had he only studied the failure of his predecessor Darius a decade before at Marathon, Xerxes might’ve thought twice about sending his troops for another Grecian slaughter.

You’ll notice that a nickname like, “The Great” is one that reappears through the progressing ages. It’s no difficulty to see why. It’s the ultimate and absolute—an unsurpassed superlative. Nothing can be better. Not only does history give us Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, but also Alexander, Catherine and Constantine. It’s a nickname I feel says too little by saying so much, but it’s had remarkable staying power. From Persia to Macedonia and Russia to Rome, few civilizations haven’t had their “Great”.

Less exalted in his own life and in the hearts of posterity was Constantine the Great’s nephew, Julian. Julian, you’ll quickly recall, was the notorious contrarian responsible for stifling Christianity’s explosion in the year 361. His conversion to paganism marked a precarious situation for the empire’s fledgling Christians and their incipient religion. With an eye looking back nostalgically at his empire’s Hellenic heritage, Julian “the Apostate”—as he came to be known—persecuted Rome’s Christians and replaced their priory with his pantheon. His nickname remains one of history’s most memorable, even if his edicts didn’t stick.

Julian the Apostate followed in the footsteps of another ill-received religious reformer many years his senior. Ikhnaton, who presided as pharaoh over Egypt in the 14th century BC, made humankind’s first foray into monotheism (the very thing Julian sought to stymie). Ikhnaton tried to erase the prevailing polytheism that had given Egypt its luminous deities like Isis, Osiris, Horus, and Shu. Unlike his polytheistic predecessors, Ikhnaton wanted the empire to exalt one god and one alone. The sun god, “Ra” or “Aten” was his deity of choice, so much so that he changed his name from Amenhotep to Ikhnaton, or he who is “effective for Aten”. A sanctimonious nickname, no doubt.

Leaping through the millennia we land with one foot in England and the other in France, straddling the island and the continent and all of the inveterate enmity between them. There, bridging the channel, we find the best nicknames of all. First there is Charles Martel, or Charles “the Hammer”. If Constantine tolerated Christianity with his Edict of Milan and Julian jettisoned it with his preference for paganism, Charles Martel resuscitated and saved the religion. At the Battle of Tours in 732, Martel fought back the ravenous Moors who had been inching ever-closer to the beating heart of Europe. Until Martel met them in the battlefield at Tours, the Muslims had been exceptionally and shockingly successful in just over one hundred years. Since Mohammed’s death in Medina in the year 632, Islam saw its influence flourish in all regions, near and far. From Mesopotamia and the Near East to Northern Africa and Iberia, Islam had become an ineluctable threat to a European continent devoted to Christ.

By the smite of the "Hammer’s" sword, the Moors were defeated and Christianity was preserved. The Muslims were forced to turn south, where they consoled themselves with their Iberian Peninsula. All land north of the Pyrenees was made to be tantalizingly out of reach. This remained to be the case when Martel’s grandson acceded the empire and the realm. Charlemagne, or Charles “the Great” continued in his grandfather’s footsteps. The younger Charles became not only the Frankish king (which at the time was one of many Germanic tribes inhabiting what we now know to be France), but the Roman Emperor as well. There he ruled from 800 until his death in 814.

Dashing forward three hundred years, Frederick I takes Martel and Charlemagne’s place within France and beyond. After consolidating his power in Germany and France, he was crowned King of Italy. After that, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, an honorific no other man had yet enjoyed in history. The Northern Italians, whom he eventually came to rule, nicknamed him innocuously Barbarossa, or “red beard”. This nickname is perhaps my personal favorite.

Suffer me another back-track, if you will, as we briefly return to a time before Barbarossa’s. The year was 1066, slightly before Frederick I’s birth and reign, and France and England were on the cusp of war. There was a crisis of succession after King Edward the Confessor (yet another fun nickname) gave Harold Godwinson his monarchical mantle on his deathbed. As such, Harold acceded the throne, but not without a controversial and ultimately lethal ordeal. Edward the Confessor forgot to whom he first promised his kingdom. That honor belonged to an expecting duke named William, residing at the time and overseeing Normandy.

Incensed by the royal snubbing, William took his ducal dudgeon across the Channel to Hastings, where the eponymous and monumental battle was fought. There, William earned the nickname (or better yet, the nom de guerre) of William the Conqueror for having taken England by force and beginning a new regime. Dead on the field in a most gruesome way laid Harold, who’d been felled with an arrow to the eye. Alas, the Anglo-Saxon reign ended and the Plantagenet dynasty began.

The Plantagenets gave us many memorable nicknames, and it’s theirs that will end this piece. We first find in that storied family Henry FitzEmpress (“Fitz”, as in Fitzgerald or Fitzpatrick is a Norman prefix meaning, “son of”, just as “O”, as in O’Connor or O’Brien is a Gaelic prefix meaning, “grandson of”). He’s better known to history as Henry II, the man so beleaguered by his conniving wife Eleanor and his sanctimonious pal Becket that he locked the former in a castle and prompted the killing of the latter. The “FitzEmpress” name was given to him to make clear his lineage dating back to his maternal grandfather, William the Conqueror.

Henry II’s son, Richard the Lionheart followed in his father’s regal procession to the English throne. And though he wasn’t so much a success at home (Richard was a fabulous soldier abroad but an unapologetically absentee king), his nickname was far superior to Henry’s own. Richard’s sobriquet was the result of many years crusading in Outremer against the vaunted Kurd and the eventual victor, Saladin.

Leaving no progeny before being killed in a rather anticlimactic way, Richard’s brother John took over the realm. This lineage eventually led to Edward the Longshanks, the last nickname on our voyage through the ages. If you’ve seen Braveheart, you know the Longshanks well. He was the towering, uncompromising king who persecuted England’s Jews and suppressed the neighboring Scots. For most, his wasn’t a happy tenure, but by golly he had quite the name. With him and all others, heroic tales and misdeeds die. But forever more, the nickname lives on.

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