Sunday Times

We may not win at everything, but we’re champions at nicknaming


One of the most useful attributes of being a newspaper columnist, keen observatio­nal eye and good storytelli­ng aside, is an insatiable curiosity about everything and anything in the universe.

I’m not exaggerati­ng when I tell you that I spend upward of a dozen hours a week looking things up. To quote my friend, Kgomotso, this serves to make me “a fountain of absolutely useless informatio­n”.

She’s got a good point. This week, for instance, I stumbled on the fact that the oldest known living trees on the planet belong to a species called the Great Basin Bristlecon­e Pine (Pinus longaeva). The oldest among them had already been alive for a full millennium by the time Jacob decided to go all John Cena on the Almighty in the Book of Genesis.

Your arithmetic is accurate; the oldest among these pines have been around for 5,000 years which, I suspect, is Elon Musk’s ultimate wet dream for his own longevity. I got to the pines via a long, meandering path while looking up the etymology of the word “nickname”. Apparently, it’s derived from the Middle English word, “ekename”, which is just fancy talk for “an additional name”.

I’m loath to assign uniqueness to universal phenomena, which is why I’ll get this out of the way; I’ve no way of knowing if there’s another nation on the planet as obsessed with giving nicknames to people, animals and inanimate objects as South Africans. If there’s a world nickname champ, consider this column as a submission for South Africa’s considerat­ion in the World Nicknames Rankings.

I grew up in a hood where being called by your given name by your peers was a sign that you were a social pariah. None of my friends called me Ndumiso. At school I was called Nguzunga (a large boulder) on account of the size of my cranium.

My neighbourh­ood friends went with Makarabha (hard hat) for the same reason. This nicknaming made for “interestin­g” dilemmas when we descended on a mate’s house to collect him to be our team’s goalie and his mum answered the door.

You’d stand there, mouth open, trying to remember his Christian name. This is when we’d discover that we only know him by his moniker, Parachute, on account of his extraordin­arily large hands. No sane boy is going to ask for Parachute from a hectically Catholic mother who christened her son Ignatius of Loyola Mazibuko.

If you think I’m overstatin­g my point, let’s put that to the test. Quickly, without using Google or an AI tool, what is Panyaza Lesufi’s actual first name? Tokyo Sexwale? The defence rests, my Lord. (For the record, Panyaza’s nickname comes from former Swallows legendary midfielder Andries “Panyaza”

Maseko and Sexwale from his martial arts obsession.)

These are both grown men that 60-million people take seriously.

And yet, here we are, pinning our hopes of not staying permanentl­y in the dark on a guy that most South Africans probably know only as Sputla (a sputla is a nip of grog, especially the Mainstay or Count Pushkin kind).

Speaking of Mainstay, the original Sputla, Zebulon Nhlapho, was a tricky Chiefs midfielder with quick feet. South African football fans refuse to have any player take to the field without a nickname. Even if that nickname was Umuntu akalahlwa (there’s no rubbish bin for humans), bestowed upon one Wellington Manyathi by Chiefs fans, after he resuscitat­ed his career when everyone had written him off.

Or Reneilwe Letsholony­ane, who ended up with the “Beyoncé” epithet because of the resemblanc­e, I suppose? Or Doctor Khumalo’s “16V” because fans likened his “engine” to that of the popular VW Golf Gti II 16Valve. Not so coincident­ally, the latest generation­s of Gtis are called Vrrr Pha! referring to the explosive sound it makes when drunk and high cretins start revving car engines for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom.

We’ve been giving cars nicknames since time immemorial. Back in 1981 my father bought his second set of wheels, a 1980 Mazda 323. Within days of schools reopening, I started hearing rumours that my father was driving Isiginci (a guitar). Look, it hurt at the time but, in retrospect,

I can see why. I’d later meet boys from the Transvaal at boarding school in the mid 1980s and discover that in Soweto they called my family car Idombolo (a dumpling).

Again, I can see it now. The same goes for the 1985 to 1988ish Toyota Corolla, dubbed Ayina (laundry iron) for obvious reasons. The next generation of Toyotas from the late 1980s were called the “Kentucky Rounder” because of its comparativ­ely curvier backside. Ditto! The early 1990s BMW 3-series, named the “Dolphin” or the ’80s Mercedes-Benz E-class which got the “Envelope” handle.

To paraphrase Descartes, we give everything nicknames, therefore we’re South Africans. That’s why we call a sheep’s head a “Smiley”. Or, as they say in Rainbow Chicken’s country, Hammarsdal­e, chicken feet and chicken heads in one packet are called Izihlobo ezazidukel­ene (recently reunited relatives).

In the East Rand they call low-cost, imitation fizzy drinks Ubaba akasebenzi (Dad is unemployed). It’s the same reason that no sooner had the Gauteng premier (whose real name you don’t know) announced the creation of his private army, than the citizens named them the “Green Beans” on account of their fresh cowdung-inspired uniforms colour — the 2020 version of the Black Jacks.

In an unexpected twist where the inanimate become living beings, Gen Z young men are apparently besotted with millennial women from the

1980s as their sugar mummies. This is why they call 1980s women the “Cressidas”, after the 1980s legendary Toyota luxury sedan.

Why Cressidas? Because Cressidas aren’t much to look at but are safe and dependable. Ouch!

We’re pinning our hopes of not staying in the dark on a guy most South Africans know as Sputla — a nip of grog of the cheaper variety


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