Handles, monikers, labels, tags, aliases, call signs, short-fors, or sobriquets—no matter what you call nicknames, there’s no doubting the popularity of people renaming people. Probably no culture ever existed that didn’t apply nicknames to friends and to foes. Certainly, that’s the case in today’s western world.

In books, we have unforgettable character nicknames like Tiny Tim and Scout. In movies, there’s Sundance Kid and the Karate Kid. In sports, there’s The Great One, The GOAT, and The Intimidator. And in politics—well, it’s full of nicknames—The Gipper, The Iron Lady, Slick Willie, Dubya, and on and on…

I grew up in a small town. Pretty much every youth had a nickname. Some of the boys were Girch, Squid, Roach, Sally (because he, for all-the-world, looked like a salamander), Charlie Tuna, and Smerchook. The girls? I remember Casey, Jimmy, Butchie, and one with the rather unflattering nickname of Skinhound.

The police world was another nickfest. I worked with Deano, Jake, Bootsie, Squigmeyer (also shortened to Squiggy), Rosco, Basil, The Wheel, Fast Eddie, Peacher, Speedy, and Percy. Those were male officers. Females were Oscar (nicknamed after a spectacular performance), Ike, Chiclets, Blow (real name Brenda Jobins), and my long-time detective partner Harry. Harry was a large lady, with large hair, and an even larger personality. She was nicknamed “Harry” after the Sasquatch/Bigfoot in the movie Harry and the Hendersons.

As a young cop in Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, I was posted from the academy to an isolated First Nations reserve. I swear they all had nicknames as well as their unpronounceable (to me) Indian or indigenous names. Weedy, Torchy, Lucky, Jam, Ritzie, Pat Squash, Hattie, and The Old Trout. I loved my time with these wonderful folks.

Back to policing. For fourteen years, I served on the Emergency Response Team (ERT or SWAT) that was overtop of regular policing duties. Every ERT member had a nickname, more for functionality than fun. These were call signs, much like the fighter pilot fraternity has. Call signs are fast and efficient ways to remember a name and communicate clearly in the heat of the moment. Call signs are unique and unforgettable. There is no mistaking who’s calling who.

Our ERT call signs were Mother, Sonny, Jimbo, Tubbs, Bude, Deet, Cro, and our leader—Boss Hogg. Me? My call sign was Alfred. I got it from that chameleon-like character on every cover of Mad Magazine—Alfred E. Neuman. (There’s a story behind this.) And Cro, by the way, looked like Cro-Magnon Man. Cro’s brow protruded so far and his nose was so flat that he couldn’t wear sunglasses.

Call signs are earned, usually from some outstanding event. They’re peer-given and not chosen by the bearer. You never give yourself a call sign. If you do, it’ll be replaced with one you really don’t like.

A month or so ago, I wrote a Kill Zone post titled Topping Top Gun Maverick. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll remember the call signs. Maverik, for Tom Cruise which carried over from the first Top Gun released in 1984. Goose, who was Maverick’s navigator and was killed in an aerial bailout. Rooster, who is Goose’s son and now Maverick’s protégé. Iceman, played by Val Kilmer. Hammer, who is trying to fire Maverick. Cyclone, who is also trying to fire Maverick. Warlock, who keeps emotions in line. And the rest of the cast—Hangman, Phoenix, Bob, Coyote, and Fan Boy.

I went down a rabbit hole and found these real fighter pilot call signs. In alphabetical order, here are the real deals and where the call signs come from:

Agony — Last name Payne

ALF — Annoying Little F**k

Alphabet — Pilot’s real name was Varsonofy Krestodovdvizhensky

Apollo — Last name Creed

Bambi — Pilot hit a pregnant deer on the runway with his nosegear in takeoff

Beagle — Pilot kept bouncing around on training landings

Berlin — Pilot turned wrong way on taxi strip and ran into a wall

Blaze — Caught himself on fire in the mess kitchen

Burbank — Pilot self-named as Hollywood and was peer-renamed

Caveman — Incredible tolerance to cold weather in survival training

Coma — Very slow talking pilot with Southern drawl

Captain — Pilot’s real name was James Kirk

Chocks — F-16 driver who began taxying before wheel chocks were removed

COOTS — Constantly Over-emphasizes Own Tactical Significance

Cypher — Broke through radio silence on a training flight, alerting the enemy

Dice — Pilot who took unnecessary chances

Dingle — Last name Berry

Duck — Pilot who took awhile learning evasive maneuvering (Sitting Duck)

Elvis — Hard to find guy, many reported sightings, but nothing concrete

Exxon — Pilot hurried through preflight checklist and missed his refueling

Fan Song — Pilot with big ears like a Fan Song fire-tracking radar antenna

Flowmax — Could never make it through a flight without using urinary relief tube

Gear Down — Forgot something on landing

Ghost — Last name Casper

Glory — Last name Hole

Gucci — Pilot who got 9-G drunk and vomited in a woman’s Gucci purse

Grumpy — Short pilot who was not a morning person

Hannibal — As in Lecter, and his smell of cauterized human flesh

Hurricane — Female F-18 Super Hornet driver named Katrina

Headless — Last name Horstman

Hyde — Pilot had split personality; most liked his Hyde side better than Jeckyl

Hi-Ho — Last name Silva

Inch — Dutch pilot measuring 5’ 4” tall

Intake — Pilot had the largest nose anyone in the squadron had ever seen

IRIS — “I Require Intense Supervision”

Jugs — First female Top Gun pilot graduating from Miramar

Kanga — Last name Rew

Krod — (Spell it backwards)

Krunch — Landing gear sound when hitting hard and short of runway

Legend — Trainee who failed an exam no one had ever failed

Lick — Last name MaWhinney

Link — Soviet-born pilot with mono brow, flat forehead, large knuckles

Me-So — Last name Horn

Marx — Pilot’s first name was Karl, and he hated communists

Magellan — Pilot had a poor sense of direction, not in line with any compass

NAG — First female Marine Corps F/A 18 WSO (Not A Guy)

NotSo — Last name Bright

Omelet — Dutch pilot call-signed “Uitsmijter” – English translation “Grilled Egg”

OhMy — Last name Gaud

PE — Pilot accidently Prematurely Ejected while on the runway

Pyro — Pilot accidently discharged evasive flares and set airfield on fire

Plan B — Pilot perpetually unlucky with the bar ladies

PopTop — Pilot who accidently jettisoned not one, but two canopies

Razor — Pilot who made the sharpest turns and maneuvers ever seen

Rebound — Pilot in so many relationships with the same woman

ROTOR — Ran Off The Only Runway

Rushmore — Pilot fined for climbing Mt. Rushmore and selfying on Lincoln’s beard

SLAW — Shops Like A Woman

Salad — First name Cesar

Salesman — Pilot who had a hard time closing deals with women

SALSA — Student Aviator Lacking Situational Awareness

T-Bone — Pilot who dropped a practice bomb straight through a cow

TBAR — That Boy Ain’t Right

Teflon — Pilot with smooth moves in the air and on the ground

Tumble Weed — Tall, vegan pilot called “Weed” who fainted and went down hard

Vapor — An F-16 Viper driver who landed with less than 10 pounds of fuel left

Vodka — Last name Smirnoff

WiFi — Pilot whose Wife Financed his new Porsche

Werewolf — Hairy pilot always grounded during full moon exercises, no exceptions

Yoda — A short Irish pilot who spoke his words backwards

Zulu — Trainee who always got time calcs wrong in flight school

Zen — A real F-15 Eagle driver more accurate without his computer gunsight system


Kill Zoners — Nicknames? Do you use them in characterization? How important are nicknames in a story? And do you have a personal nickname you’d like to share?

40 thoughts on “Nicknames

  1. A fun post, Garry. In the USMC, to most I was just Gunny or, after I picked up E-8, Top (like most gunnery sgts and master sgts). But for the last several years of my career, the person I called SMAJ (the sgt major) referred to me as Taz. Said when I walked across the gunpark, it always looked like I was on my way to whip something. (grin)

  2. I my early Blackthorne books, I missed this opportunity, but now, of my Blackthorne characters have call sign/nicknames, and they’re assigned by the other members of the team. Nash became “Rambler”, Cashman became “Scrooge”, T-Bone was named that because he’s a vegetarian. Charles Edward became “Cheese.” It’s fun and provides a little more layering for the characters.

  3. Fun post, Garry

    Personal nickname: Doc – after returning to my home community to practice medicine and personal friends thought it should be more than Steve

    My Mad River Magic series (YA fantasy adventures): I used nicknames that fit into the native American source of the magic and the magic forest that is the home of the gang:
    Scout (Leighton) – always taking things apart, curious
    Rey (Regan) – blonde ray of sunshine
    Aves (Averie) – flies her magic flying barrel cart like she was born in it
    Brook (Brooklyn) – quiet, peaceful
    Chief (Ethan) – loves to take charge
    Lil (Lillian) – petit
    Mari (Marian) – always merry
    Elm (Logan) – tall, like the Logan elm under which the Mingo chief gave a famous speech
    Arch (Rhys) – natural talent with the bow as an archer

  4. I went a bit crazy in my first novel with nicknames for my main character. Everyone had a different one for him. I ended up removing all but one because they added nothing but confusion to the story although I only used his first name in narrative, and he wasn’t a part of a paramilitary/police organization or gang. Since that world was never part of any of my stories, I learned my lesson and kept the nicknames to a minimal amount in my novels.

    If you really want confusion, read classic Russian novels. Characters’ names in narrative keep changing because of Russian conventions I’ve never figured out. “Who the h*ll is this” is not a good thing for a reader to keep saying.

  5. I love these nicknames, Alfred. I particularly like “Krunch.” (Don’t ask me why.)

    I haven’t used nicknames much in my works, but you’ve got me thinking. Thanks for a chuckle on a cloudy Thursday morning.

    • I forgot one nickname from my police days, Kay. He was the pilot of our police utility plane, a Grumman Goose amphib. (I’m sure you know the aircraft.) Don had a habit of nodding off at the controls. Everyone knew him as Captain Nap.

    • On my end of the nickname scale, everyone’s call sign had a story behind it. Mostly it was from screwing up or some behavior/looks issue. Yep, it served a dose of humility on them. Thanks for the comment, Mike.

  6. While going through Air Force nicknames, how did you miss BUFF? BUFF is actually a plane, the B52. B52s have been in use so long they have passed flying the plane daddy flew and onto The plane grandpa flew. BUFF? Big Ugly Fat “Fellow”.

    • I’ve never heard a B52 being called BUFF, Alan. I just Googled B52 and see it took its maiden flight in 1952 – 4 years before I was born. And it’s still in service, whereas I’m not.

  7. I worked with someone nicknamed Z-man. One day I asked how Tommy became Z-man. He had personalized plates. He wrote down 2-MUCH on the form. The DMV read it and sent him plates reading Z-MUCH. It stuck.

  8. Fun post, Garry.

    In my Grave series, many characters have both a nickname and a call sign. Jonathan assigns the call signs as he see fit.
    Jonathan Grave – Nickname Digger; call sign Scorpion (“because it sounds cool”)
    Brian Van de Muelebroecke – nickname Boxers; call sign Big Guy (because he’s huge)
    Venice Alexander – Call sign Mother Hen (because she’s a worrier)
    Gail Bonneville – call sign Gunslinger (because she’s a wicked good shot and also because she hates the call sign)
    FBI Director Irene Rivers – Wolverine (because she’s a vicious fighter)
    Father Dom D’Angelo – call sign Special Friend

    The fire departments where I ran weren’t big on nicknames, and call signs were specific to units, not to people. (If I was the officer on Wagon 14, my call sign was “Wagon 14.”) Those were the days when only the officer carried a radio. Now that everybody’s got one, that’s probably changed.

    • Interesting how you point out the separation of nicknames and call signs, John. I hadn’t observed that and never thought about it. BTW, you’ve got some great handles in your books!

  9. Great post, Garry! I’m with Debbie . . . had to put my coffee down…

    I know from my law enforcement days, and my years in the medical field, there were some handles out there, but can I remember any of them? 🙁

    However, I am going to forward this list to a friend of ours. He just had open heart surgery in Seattle, and is a retired federal cop, Homeland Security agent, Vietnam vet, and an all-around good guy. He tells lots of stories.

    This list will make him laugh out loud, I’m sure. Thanks for the guffaws, my friend…

    • Good morning, Deb. At least it’s still morning in my part of the world. I think this post will hit home for everyone who’s worked in the military or emergency services. Thanks for sharing with your friend!

  10. Oh wow this took me back to my Air Force days.
    At basic my DI (aka The Banshee From Hell) called me Princess because I arrived in a cute little sundress with my hair and nails done.

    At tech school I was Sunshine because I was from Florida.

    My husband was an Air Weapons Director. I think he knew some of those pilots.

    Good times!

  11. Hilarious, Garry!!! When I got to T-Bone hot tea sprayed all over my keyboard. Thanks for that, buddy. 😉

    Bob and I rename most of our friends, and the nicknames stick whether they like ’em or not. LOL I also use nicknames for certain characters in my books.

    • Hey Suzie Q. (You leaked that out to me a long, long time ago.) BTW, what’s your pet name for Bob? Mine for Rita is Reet, and her coworkers call her Reetie. She’s also been known over the years as Root, Ritabega, Munch, and Buns.

      • I just now recalled what my Dad, a Korean War navy vet used to call me when I was small, smaller, and smallest.

        Housemouse . . . on account of they had to pry me out of my room and the book out of my hands to get me to go outside and play.


      • Pup. And I loaned Bob’s pet name to Niko for MARRED, never thinking it would become a series. When my editor sent back the first round of edits, she said, “What’s pup mean? You didn’t explain why Sage gave Niko the nickname.”

        I said, “Because I don’t know. I’ve called my husband that for decades. No idea where it stemmed from.”

        And that was the end of it. Niko’s remained “pup” through five novels now with no explanation. Y’know what? Readers don’t care about its backstory. Context tells them it’s a term of endearment.

        Munch and Buns? Hahaha!

        • “Pup.” I can hear you saying it as “Pahp”. One of my police buddies, nicknamed Deano, told Rita her buns looked like “two little piggies in a sack”.

          Rita has always had perfect skin. Even now at 64, she doesn’t have a wrinkle. One night, Deano was drunk (as usual) and complemented on Rita’s complexion saying in slurred words, “You look like an Ivory Snow girl.” Rita looked shocked and said, “What! I look like an Irish Negro?”

  12. A project I worked on had four guys named Robert. We used up Robert, Rob, Bob, and Bert, then hired a Bob Behrens. I preemptively dubbed him “Bear,” and it stuck.

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