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  • Writer's pictureJerry Della Femina


This is an old column from 2010 about nicknames.

Where have they gone?

When I was a kid almost everybody had a nickname.

Some of them made no sense at all.

In my first wife Barbara’s family there were two women who were cousins, called “Big Tootsie” and “Little Tootsie.”

The problem was “Big Tootsie” was a small thin woman who couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds soaking wet.

And “Little Tootsie” was an overweight giant who was over 200 pounds.

Here’s how that works: They didn’t go by weight, they went by age, and “Big Tootsie” was born 20 years before “Little Tootsie.” Thus she became the one and only “Big Tootsie.”

This was the same family that had so many people named Mary that they identified them by the streets on which they lived. So there was only one Mary “Carroll Street,” and she was never confused with Mary “Adelphi Street.”

My wonderful, favorite Uncle Fred Corsaro (I called him “Gee Gee”) married into a large family with more than 10 boys named Vito. God knows how they sorted that out.

The children of the next generation solved it all by calling each other “Dude,” but “Dude” as a nickname has sort of gone out of style, and kids these days now call each other by their boring proper names.

Now read about “Big Nose.”


A few years ago I opened the New York Post and read about a guy with whom I went to David A. Boody Junior High School in Brooklyn, a lot of years ago.

He was a big, tough kid and now he’s a big, tough old man. According to the story I read, he was going “away” (as they used to describe jail in the old days in my neighborhood) for the rest of his life. I was intrigued that the newspaper called him by a nickname, “Big Nose.”

As I said, this is a very tough guy, and I’m sure no one ever dared call him “Big Nose” to his nose er…er…to his face.

I’m fascinated by nicknames.

Nicknames are an Italian/Jewish thing of the past.

They were used, believe it or not, to avoid confusion.

A few years ago I ran into an old friend from Brooklyn. I hadn’t seen him since I was 16. “Yo, Hooks,” he said. “It’s me, Dog.”

“Yo, Dog,” I said. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Liddle a dis. Liddle a dat.”

I was suddenly aware of how my whole speech pattern had changed the minute “Dog” identified himself. At that moment I was back in time, standing in front of Hy and Ann’s candy store under the Culver line “El” at McDonald Avenue and Avenue U.

I was a blond, duck-tailed kid with pegged pants, wearing a leather jacket and flirting with girls with names like “Bubbles” and Barbara “Black.”

“Ya see any of the guys?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I went back to Avenue U to see my Aunt Mary, God bless her she’s 92, and I saw “Frankie Nuts” and “Blackie” and “Baldy.” I looked for “Hoppy” but he wasn’t around.

“Ya know “Beansy” got killed. He turned into a bust-out gambler…was into the shies for thousands…too bad, he was a nice guy.”

“Yeah, a nice guy,” I answered, thinking of “Beansie” playing softball at the PS 95 schoolyard – a fresh-faced 17-year-old who couldn’t wait to join the Marines. He lasted six months and I believe they discharged him for striking a superior officer. He came back and the neighborhood’s gambling monster chewed him up and spit him out.

“Curly just went away,” “Dog” said, shaking his head.

“Yeah, I read about it. Too bad, he was a nice kid,” I said, trying to bring back the handsome young boy into my memory and trying to forget the pudgy old guy whose grainy picture was in the New York Post when he was sentenced.

“I think he’s going to be away forever,” “Dog” said.

“Yeah, at this age forever is a lot closer than it was when we were 16,” I said.

We both continued the small talk in our own particular verbal shorthand, and then we awkwardly hugged each other and turned in different directions and went back to our lives.

I hardly knew “Dog” in my old neighborhood – he was part of an older, tougher group of boys, many of whom went “away.” I didn’t have the nerve to ask “Dog” what a “liddle a dis, liddle a dat” meant.

Was it just my old neighborhood in Brooklyn where everybody had a nickname? Did they have nicknames in the Bronx and Queens? New Jersey? Today, the Facebook generation kids all call their friends by their proper names. There isn’t a “Frankie Nuts” or a “Baldy” to be found.

Are nicknames a thing of the past? Was it an attempt by the kids of my generation to give everyone a distinct identity, or did we all just have a lousy memories for names?

My friend George Melore used to call me “Hooks” because the only basketball shot I would take was a “hook” shot.

“Dog” was called “Dog” because when he went to the race track he would always bet on the long shot or the “underdog.” My friend Frankie, at the age of 15, lost his temper and slugged a gym teacher twice his size. Thus, Frankie “Nuts” was born.

Barbara “Black’s” family was from Sicily and so she had dark skin; thus she became Barbara “Black.” I won’t tell you how “Bubbles” got her name except to say it was a sexual reference related to a popular song of the time.

It was a different time.

It was a different place.

Sometimes late at night I think about it and I wish I could be “Hooks” again and have it all back.

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