A nickname is an alternative to a person's real name, by which he or she can be referred to informally. Some are known only to a handful of people, while others are public knowledge. They can be affectionate or scornful. Some choose their own nicknames; others have nicknames thrust upon 'em.
Why Have a Nickname?
There are many reasons why someone can end up having a nickname, or even more than one: different nicknames can be used in different situations (one in real life, another on the Internet) or by different persons (family and friends).
Affection and deprecation. Real names can be considered quite neutral and impersonal. Using a nickname instead can make one seem more unique or cared for. On the other hand, using a nickname in a demeaning way often indicates that the recipient doesn't belong to a group.
Secrecy and disguise. Nicknames may be used by an individual in order not to avoid disclosing his or her real name, for some reason. Soviet politician Josef Dzhugashvili used to call himself 'Stalin' ('the man of steel') for secrecy and anonymity. With time however, the nickname became better known than his real name. User names on Internet forums are another example; here, a nickname might make you feel somewhat protected from stalking, or maybe you just want to prevent your boss from finding out what you do during office hours. Of course, using a nickname is also a way to get a more exciting name.
Tradition also plays a part in allocation of nicknames. In the British Army for instance, nearly everyone has one; many cricket players also have one. Spin bowler Derek Underwood, for example, was called 'Milk'.
Of course, the fact that your nickname is known only to some of your friends might lead to awkward situations. One Researcher remembers:
I once knew a chap whose name was DC Hawkins, but all us colleagues used to call him 'Jim', presumably after the cabin-boy in Treasure Island.
Come the evening of a dinner-dance, he brought his wife. I mentioned 'Jim' to her and she didn't know who I was talking about. Apparently she'd never ever heard him referred to by this pseudonym despite having been married to him, probably since World War II (he'd been a Flight Engineer on Lancaster bombers). She'd always called him by his proper first name of 'Derek' (which us colleagues had never ever heard).
How to Choose a Nickname
The method of finding a nickname depends partly on whether you choose it for yourself or for someone else. Nicknaming someone is not always the result of a conscious process: one day, you will observe that your friend looks like John Cleese, and from then on this nickname will stick to him1.
Physical features are a very common source of nicknames. One well-known example is US gangster Al Capone, nicknamed 'Scarface' after receiving several knife slashes in the face during a fight.
Character traits can also be used for nicknames, notably for kings or other rulers. Thus, Russian Tsar Ivan IV is better known as 'Ivan the Terrible'.
Variation on the real name is another popular choice for internet nicknames. These can be a deformation of the way the real name is pronounced, or an anagram or just the use of the initials. Famous examples include 'Dubya' for George W Bush, 'Bison Ravi' ('Delighted Bison') for the French writer and musician, Boris Vian and 'DNA' for Douglas Adams.
Self-appointed nicknames can be used to make statements. Although the 'Sun King', Louis XIV of France didn't actually pick the nickname himself, he did choose the sun as a symbol; like the sun shining in the universe, the king dispenses enlightenment, justice and happiness to his court.
Who Gets Nicknamed?
Anybody can acquire a nickname, whether they like it or not.
Public figures. Political figures are the first choice of popular nicknaming, whether in an affectionate manner - eg, 'Tonton' ('Uncle'), for French President François Mitterrand, or in a mocking way, 'Governator' for US actor and Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous for his portrayal of a ruthless cyborg in James Cameron's thriller The Terminator. Popular sportsmen can be in some sense rewarded by a nickname: 'Kaiser Franz' is not an emperor, but the footballer Franz Beckenbauer. Other people who are, even in passing, in the centre of public interest may acquire a nickname. For example, the rapist and serial killer, Peter Kürten was nicknamed the 'Vampire of Düsseldorf' by the contemporary media.
Teachers are also very popular targets. They are, to a lesser extent, public figures with quite a large 'audience'. Young and imaginative minds will very quickly find an alternative and often humorous way to refer to their professor. Sometimes, the nickname changes with every class, but it can also be transmitted through generations of students.
Private figures. These are the people who make up your everyday life - friends, neighbours, the local baker, etc. This includes yourself: when you register on some Internet messageboards, you are invited to pick your own nickname. This may come from a real-life example, or may be invented just for that purpose. If so, it can subsequently become a real-life nickname, especially after attending Internet parties organised by messageboard regulars.
Things, rather than people, can also get nicknamed. These can be everyday objects, or maybe frightening things which you may wish to seem less scary.
Television is sometimes called 'the box' in Britain, because of its shape.
A police van is known as a 'Black Maria' in Britain, while the French refer to it as the 'salad basket' (le panier à salade). In Germany, police cars are called 'Blaue Minna' ('blue Minna') - even though they were until quite recently distinctly green in colour.
Cities also have nicknames: 'Auld Reekie' refers to the smoky atmosphere of bygone Edinburgh, while the epithet 'Venice of the North' has been applied to each of Bruges, Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Stockholm!
'Hootoo' is a very common nickname for h2g2 on these boards.
'Grigoris' and 'Stamatis' are the names used in Greece for the little traffic light men. Grigoris is the green man who indicates that pedestrians can cross the street; Stamatis, the red man, shows that you have to wait. The origin of these nicknames lies in a Greek pun: the name Γ ρ η γό ρ η ς (Grigoris) is similar to the adjective γ ρήγ ο ρ ο ς (grigoros), which means 'fast, swift', whereas the name Σ τ α μάτ η ς (Stamatis) sounds like the verb σ τ α μ α τάω (stamatao), meaning 'to stop'.