A small notice in the Nov. 18 edition of this paper caught my eye and started me thinking. It announced a memorial for Joe Corea, a good man. The notice mentioned that Joe, like his father and grandfather, was known as “Joe Cow.” So, along with whatever else Joe inherited, he got his nickname — like it or not.
“Cow” is not as unflattering as “Rat,” or “Boozie,” or “Phats,” or a good many other nicknames I have uncovered.
The nicknames of the Portuguese have always fascinated me. They are a testament to the intimacy of a community composed of fine-textured extended families and friends, cousins and coworkers, school chums and teammates. To consider these names is to reflect on a time and a community that no longer exists — one with a lack of pretension and a familiarity that would be shocking today. And yet, this was not so long ago and is still within living memory of many.
My quest for more substance on this topic led me to Harry Kemp’s pamphlet Rhymes of Provincetown Nicknames, published in 1954. (Librarian Nan Cinnater helped me lift the Lucite cover and gently extricate the document from its exhibition case.) To update what I found there, I interviewed my good friend Mark DaLomba, who is, of course, Portuguese and cares about the history of this town. He in turn directed me to Lisa King’s “My Grandfather’s Provincetown” page on Facebook, and the plethora of excellent entries from so many people that appear there.
Why did the old-time Portuguese have their nicknames? Kemp tells us in verse: “When fishermen, like-named, work on the same crew,/ The employment of nicknames is practical, too.”
He adds that the problem exists due to “Dutras and Silvas as thick as the air.” Mark noted that the first names were often the same as well. “You were either Manuel or Joe if you were a male or Maria or Isabella if you were female.”
How did one acquire a nickname? Kemp, again in verse: “If you have an odd way, or you fight with your wife,/ You will be nicked with a name that will dent you for life!”
Although: “Now some of these nicknames are family-borne./ Where children inherit each nickname in turn.”
And so I did or do know consecutive people named “Blue” and others named “Ding.” I knew “Pi Alley” and “Jimmy Peak” and “Flyer”; and I know “Tartsy” but never met “Bushy Bill” or “Squash” or “Big He” or “Buckets” or “Joe Didit” or “Bobby Cabbage.”
I should also point out that the overwhelming majority of nicknames are male, probably because in those early years women were not as much out in the working world in town, although I did find “Mary Half Dollar,” “Mary Spaghetti,” and “Big Bertha.”
I have no nickname and neither did my father; I doubt whether my grandfathers did either, although I know little about them. My father’s father was a rabbi, so he certainly had nothing as trifling as a nickname. I never met him; my existence was hidden from him during his lifetime because my father married a Gentile. My mother’s father was a drunk and a ne’er-do-well who basically abandoned his family; he worked for the railroad when he could and may well have earned a nickname, probably not a complimentary one. I saw him only once, a broken old man.
I grew up in a family bifurcated by two cultures; I valued both but was confused as a child by their juxtaposition. Beyond that, as I came of age, I entered the diluted world of American society.
I was just a grown child, 22 years old, when I landed in Provincetown, and, entranced as I was by the counterculture of the 1960s, I was increasingly drawn to and awed by the existence of the Portuguese here, who seemed to be so connected to each other by their religion, their livelihoods, their food, and, yes, their nicknames. For want of a better word, they seemed so real. Isn’t that what we are all seeking?