What Do People Call You?

sobriquetNearly everyone has a sobriquet, even those who don’t know what it is.

C.S. Lewis knew what they are, of course, and he created his own at a young age.

Sobriquet is a French word for moniker (which is, itself, traced back to Shelta, a covert language of Irish gypsies). In more common parlance, a sobriquet or moniker is simply a nickname.

C.S. Lewis loved dogs. This is significant because his earliest nickname—the self-appointed one—derived from a dog he cared for during his youth. As his stepson relates the story:

When he was a small boy, he didn’t like the name [Clive] and soon changed it to “Jacksie” by simply refusing to answer to anything else. It was actually because of a small dog that he was fond of that he picked the name Jacksie . . .

It was run over (probably by a horse and cart as there were almost no cars at the time and place where he was a child), and Jack, as he later became known, just took the name for himself. (Jack’s Life)

C.S. Lewis’ Personal Sobriquet

Jacksie wasn’t Lewis’ only childhood sobriquet. He and his brother Warnie embraced a pair of titles that have a delightful source. Warnie was “Archpiggiebotham” and Jack was “Smallpiggiebotham.” A footnote in volume one of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis explains the names.

Jack sometimes addressed Warnie as “APB” and, in turn, Warnie addressed his brother as “SPB.” When Warnie and Jack were very young their nurse, Lizzie Endicott, when drying them after a bath, threatened to smack their “pigieboties” or “piggiebottoms.”

In time the brothers decided that Warnie was the “Archpiggiebotham” and Jack the “Smallpiggiebotham” or “APB” and “SPB.” Thereafter they used these terms of one another, particularly in their correspondence.

Like most famous individuals, Lewis collected a variety of (not always flattering) nicknames as he rose to what passed for celebrity status in Oxford. (I’ve written about how some of his peers resented his reputation—probably due to envy.)

Inkling Sobriquets

The Inklings were a richly creative community. Tollers (Tolkien) shared the limelight with Lewis. Tolkien’s self-assumed epithet was “a hobbit in all but size.”

Charles Williams adopted the nickname Serge, by which some of his most intimate friends addressed him. His collected letters to his wife were published under the title of both of their nicknames, To Michal from Serge.

In Oxford Inklings, Colin Duriez writes, “nicknames and the use of last names were common in Oxford, perhaps reflecting the enduring influence of the private schools that most students and teaching staff of that time had experienced.” Sadly, I’ve yet to find a place where these names were compiled.

David Downing, author of Looking for the King does mention several. On his website he lists the members of the Inklings. He says of one faithful member, who was also C.S. Lewis’ physician:

[Robert] Havard became one of the most regular attendees at Inklings meetings and seems to have collected the most nicknames. Hugo Dyson started calling him “Humphrey,” and the name seems to have been used more than Havard’s Christian name. (The physician mentioned briefly in Lewis’s novel Perelandra is called “Humphrey.”)

Havard was also called the “Useless Quack” or “U.Q.” by Warren Lewis and the “Red Admiral” by C.S. Lewis when he returned from World War II service at sea wearing a ruddy beard. [Editor: I’m confident Warnie meant Useless Quack affectionately.]

That the Inklings were fond of nicknames is evidenced by the fact they even bestowed a nickname on the Eagle and Child pub where they gathered. They called it the Bird and Baby.

C.S. Lewis: The Paternal Professor

I will close with a passage from one of Lewis’ students whose recollections are preserved in the collection, C.S. Lewis Remembered. It is significant in part because it challenges the false criticisms of Lewis biographer A.N. Wilson. It is noteworthy this description comes from a student who remained a devoted atheist who regarded “religious propositions as not even erroneous, but simply as meaningless.”

All Lewis’ most interesting tutorial students would turn up [for his literary discussions]. A.N. Wilson reported complaints that Lewis delighted in “verbal bullying” and was unapproachable and daunting as a tutor. Not in my time. The suggestion that Lewis could be “intimidating” would have raised incredulous laughter in this group. His affectionate sobriquet was “Papa Lewis.”

What a wonderful nickname for a brilliant professor. Would that we all might have had an opportunity to study at the feet of Papa Lewis.

18 thoughts on “What Do People Call You?

      1. It did, though I was honestly more struck by the thought of what great affection is behind a nickname. And of course I always love learning something new about Lewis and his friends!

  1. I enjoyed reading through this.

    Perhaps the blessing of a sobriquet is more of a male practice. The guys on the track team in my high school all referred to each other by nicknames or last names, usually derived from their physical appearance and/or their real names.

    For example: a smaller runner was called by his last name, Stocking; his younger brother was then named Bootie.

    1. Stocking and Bootie, that’s great.

      You may be on to something about the possibility of a gender preference. I can think of numerous examples of guys who’ve given each other nicknames, but only a couple involving women.

      My senior year a female friend on the Forensic (Speech and Debate) team who was also a thespian, anointed me “The Voice of Experience.” I chose to interpret that as a reference to my being knowledgable on a wide range of subjects… but it’s possible she just meant that I had an opinion to express about everything.

  2. My friends and I would always give teachers nicknames–“Mama B,” “Rosie” (a male teacher), or in one case, simply “Dad.” A favorite teacher of mine was “Papa Jeffus,” which is what “Papa Lewis” made me think of! Come to think of it, the two men are very similar. I love the fact that students in such different times and places still do the same things.

    1. Teachers often get sobriquets from the students. I must confess that most of the ones I remember weren’t particularly flattering. (But that’s probably because I was a boy, being raised by a dad in the Marines.)

      I think that’s great that your Papa Jeffus reminds you of Lewis. That’s a great memory to spark.

  3. What a fun post. I love the fact that Lewis simply decided on his own nickname and refused to respond to anything else – kids keep it simple and take things into their own hands when “necessary”.
    I always wanted a nickname but it seemed someone else had to bestow it. (Love yours as the Voice of Experience – haha). Guess I gave myself one with the blog.

    1. Your blog handle does serve as a great nickname. I fared well with the one I mentioned. The same young lady who bestowed mine called a mutual friend (also in the debate/drama circle) “the Devil’s Advocate.”

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    1. Yes, some nicknames are less appealing than others. I just recalled one that stung my sainted mother her entire life. It wasn’t even creative. Her maiden name was “Nesby” and some hooligan christened her “Nesbitterbutt.”

      Though she lived in the same town until she grew up, I doubt that the nickname lasted more than a few months… but she sure remembered it!

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