And you thought all firepeople were just nicknamed "Smoky."
And you thought all firepeople were just nicknamed "Smoky."

Fire fighters have smokin' nicknames

If you ever talk with a firefighter, you find out quickly there is a deep, yet often unspoken sense of community within their profession, and among one another. That unspoken camaraderie requires trust, communication and a sense of community. And so do nicknames.

Frankly, nicknames incubate in community. And one of the last vestiges of "true community" in our modern world resides in the local fire houses. The sharing of meals, swapping of stories, sliding down poles, strapping on the boots, and the "life on the line" work experiences have way of doing that. The implicit trust, and sense of community embedded there is second to none. And, as a result, fire houses are a great source of nicknames.

Hollywood's expression of the local fire house and nicknames came to us 20 years ago, with the movie Backdraft. Nicknames were a point of connection in that movie. There was Kurt Russell as "Bull," Scott Glenn as "Axe" and Robert De Niro as "Shadow."

Closer to home, I visited a Milwaukee fire house recently to confirm the prevalence and relevance of nicknames, on and off the ladder. The local lieutenant I spoke with confirmed that nicknames are still very much a part of the tradition of firefighting.

"There are a bunch of nicknames across all of the 36 fire houses in Milwaukee," he said. And it sounded like the more active the station, the more opportunity for nicknames to be generated. Some houses will record upwards of 2,000 calls in a single year, or roughly 10 a day.

Best known locally perhaps, is "Fireman Jim" who actually appears from time to time on local FM radio via "The Bob and Brian Show." But there is also a Milwaukee firefighter nicknamed "The Voice of the People." Seems this particular firefighter has a pretty good handle on just about everything going on across town. There is also "Shenny" and "BSJ," short-hand for his polysyllabic birth name. I also learned of "Greasy" and "Sweaty" and "Clavin" – nicknames that likely speak for themselves.

Sometimes a…

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Macon Whoopee.
Macon Whoopee.

Team nicknames and mascots

People who know me well, know I get bored very quickly. And while I appreciate the local and regional mascots and team nicknames like "Bucky Badger," the "Brew Crew," "Bango," the Rhinelander "Hodags" and the ineffable Hurley "Midgets," nothing stirs my cocoa and my curiosity, more than a name like the "Banana Slugs" from the University of California – Santa Cruz, or even better, the Macon "Whoopee" from Macon, Ga.

Two mascots and team names that are anything but boring. If there is a better nickname for a sports team than the Macon "Whoopee" I have yet to hear it. So what if it's the name of the now defunct Macon Whoopee minor league hockey team from the East Coast Hockey League? This team had a nickname strong enough to carry the entire league on it's whoopee-making shoulders.

And what about the "Banana Slugs?" In 1980, when the University of Santa Cruz decided to get into the NCAA game, they concurred that the school's mascot would simply be a sea lion. Students however, had grown attached to the colorful slugs that populate the redwoods on campus, and adopted them as an unofficial mascot.

But when the university announced their sea lion decision, students protested and rallied to lobby for the Ariolimax Columbianus. The students won, as they should, and "Sammy the Banana Slug" has been one of the most recognizable college mascots ever since.

A mascot, by definition, is "a person, animal, or object believed to bring good luck, especially one kept as the symbol of an organization such as a sports team."

Something like "The Racing Sausages" at Miller Park perhaps? Here in Wisconsin, we have some real show-stoppers of our own. I can only imagine, after hours of "school-bored" debate, as I like to spell it, it was clearly time to just burn the script and accept some of the following high school team names.

There's the Ashland "Oredockers" and the Butternut "Mighty Midgets," as opposed to what, just the regular "Midgets" from Hurley? There are also the Clintonville …

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What's your sweetie's nickname?
What's your sweetie's nickname?

Nicknames for couples: "Holy Hot Tamales" or how about "Wozzilroy?"

We all know about the "trend" of celebrity couples with combined names that they awkwardly shoe-horn into nicknames. When it works, it can be endearing. When it doesn't, it quickly degenerates into a very bad-tasting alphabet soup.

I've been meaning to blog on this topic for quite some time, but have been waiting for the right impetus. And it recently arrived from two very different places. One came from the PGA tour, and the other from last month's Harvest Festival in Cedarburg.

If you haven't heard by now, PGA tour and international golf star Rory McIlroy and professional tennis star Caroline Wozniacki have been dating. What better way to share and declare your love with the world, than by giving yourselves a nickname, albeit a horrible one: "Wozzilroy." What?

And if that combo isn't atrocious enough, McIlroy recently made his love "official" by engraving the name "Wozzilroy" into a golf club. Good thing he gets all his golf clubs for free. Can't help but wonder how soon "Wozzilroy" will show up on one of her tennis rackets?

For those of us more entrenched in the real world, I learned recently of a great local couple with a combined nickname a few weeks ago, when I had a nickname booth at the Harvest Festival in Cedarburg. I placed a long strip of butcher paper across the table, and I invited passersby to write down their nickname with a Sharpie. It turned out to be a great idea, gleaned from a good friend.

A couple stopped by, named Tom and Molly. I did not catch their last name.

"Hey," Molly said. "Tom and I have a combined nickname; it's Tomolly."

Who'da thunk? A nickname sweeter than the Hot Tamales candy itself. As always, the simpler the better. And having met them, their moniker fit them perfectly.

Many linguistics experts suggest that there is a sociological underpinning to the trend. It's one of those goofy unspoken realities in life where people are trying to make a connection, via "inside information" with the listeners.

For many, getting the reference enables …

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"The Gristleman" sizzling.
"The Gristleman" sizzling.

Koch's nickname comes from food fight

If you ever have the chance to meet Greg Koch in person, do it, but don't be shy. In his world, he has the personality and talent to sell both the sizzle and the steak. In fact, his personality is the sizzle, his guitar playing is the steak, and his nickname is "The Gristleman." And where better to have that nickname come from than a food fight at Ma Fischer's?

As he said during our interview, "Where there's fat, there's flavor." Probably not the greatest pick up line in a bar, but when you talk to Greg, he's full of two-cent slogans for million-dollar mysteries.

When we chatted a while back to learn how he acquired his nickname, he cut to the bone.

"Years ago we were playing a house gig at a place in Milwaukee on Brady Street called The Up and Under, or, The Rape and Plunder, as I liked to call it. We were playing music and I said, 'Boy we are pounding the gristle like warriors.' Pound the gristle. It became a phrase for intense musical activity. Very quickly, it became a catch-all phase where all that is wrong meets all that is right. Sometime later, we were at Ma Fischer's, and there was a piece of gristle from a steak, and a food fight broke out. Then they started calling me the gristle pounder, then it became The Gristleman, then there was a nickname on a web site, and they started calling me The Gristleman. Where there's fat, there's flavor," says Koch.

As is so often the case with nicknames, they can quickly take on a life of their own. Greg and his nickname became one in the same. His story amplifies that notion like one of his guitar riffs blaring through a JBL speaker. Pretty soon, Greg had a record called "Radio Free Gristle" and a magazine interview titled: "The Gristleman Commeth." No chance of stopping this nickname now.

Locally, he had a signature Fender guitar made called the "Gristlecaster." And on the local Milwaukee radio station WKLH 96.5 with Dave and Carole, they call him the Gristleman as well. It has become a quirky term of endearment …

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