In history class, most names we memorize are formal names, such as “James” and “William.” I can think of very few historical figures, pre-1950, whose nicknames were passed down to modern-day history students. Let’s see, we have Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln (I’ve heard he hated “Abe”), Teddy Roosevelt, and “Silent Cal” Coolidge off the top of me head. But what about “Tom” Jefferson, “Marty” Van Buren, “Bill” Harrison, and “Jimmy” Polk? Weren’t at least a couple of these guys referred to as their nicknames by their contemporaries? And what about speech? So much of what we know comes from formal documents and letters, so the type of speech we end up seeing in movies is kind of flowery. (Yeah, I know. Hollywood.) I know our speech has changed over the years, but don’t you think language was just a little more “earthy” than what we’re led to believe? I’ll use a couple of examples from the Civil War era to illustrate what I’m thinking.
Gettysburg, July 3, 1863.
Robert E. Lee: Jim, I want you to get George, Issac, and Johnny, and have their divisions charge up the middle to take out the Yankees.
James Longstreet: Christ, Bobby, are you out of your f@#*ing mind?! They’ll mow our asses down like ripe grain…or something.
Robert E. Lee: Goddammit, Jim, you do as I say, or it’s your ass!
James Longstreet: All right, fine. But I think it’s a big mistaaaaaake.
Some random bar in Washington, D.C., June, 1865. Or maybe Baltimore. Or wherever.
Ulysses S. Grant: Jesus, Billy, you really torched the shit outta that place. Now I know why they call it “Hotlanta.” Ha ha!
William T. Sherman: Ha ha! That’s a good one, you ass.
Ulysses S. Grant: What was that?
William T. Sherman: I said, that’s a good one, U. S.
Actually, I can pretty easily imagine the exchange between Sherman and Grant.
And while I’m at it, why did Thomas Wilson and Stephen Cleveland go their middle names, Woodrow and Grover, respectively? Were they trying to get beat up in school? Maybe Cleveland figured he stood a better chance of having a purple muppet named after him if he went by his middle name instead of his first.
These questions plague me.