Whether they grace the steps of our law courts, have flirted briefly with politics or are nationally-known businessmen, people making the headlines often come with a nickname. Maltese even provides a proverb for it: skont għamilek laqmek – your behaviour earns you your nickname.

The use of nicknames is endemic to the islands. So we read about il-Pupa; ix-Xemx; il-Killer; ix-Xadina; il-Farfett; ix-Xitan; l-Imnieħru; l-Ajkla; l-Artist; iċ-Ċaqnu; il-Bully; ta’ Faldu; il-Qaħbu; taċ-Ċorma; ta’ Balalu; tan-Nusa.

If you ask your friends or twirl around on your office chair, you might even discover a few of your own: at work I sit near iċ-Ċomba and iċ-Ċanga.

It’s important that they are recorded as part of the cultural heritage and the collective memory of the location

The Maltese word for nickname is laqam, from tlaqqam meaning ‘to graft’. A nickname can throw light on the identity of a person, family or group.

Once you’re labelled, the name tends to stick. A priest who was nicknamed Il-Ġurdien (rat) is quite philosophical about it and quips that it is his “purgatorial penance on earth”.

To this day, in several villages it is easier to find a person by the nickname than a surname. According to linguist Mario Cassar, in villages and in certain urban zones, nicknames are still very prominent. “I assume that they will persist for a long time still – the coining of one is a strong social and cultural impulse,” Dr Cassar told Times of Malta.

Anyone – from footballers to singers and politicians – may be given a nickname. “Even students come up with nicknames for their teachers,” he said.

For a long time the nickname was deemed more important than the surname of the person. “It is much more easier to identify Fredu z-Zunga or Marija tal-Għawdxi than Fredu Zammit or Marija Refalo,” said Dr Cassar who is from Luqa where several people are still known by their nicknames.

In his research, he came across several old electoral registries where nicknames were included: in the 1939 edition in Luqa the registry listed 685 men eligible for voting and 69 of them had their nicknames listed too. Nicknames were very practical when it came to distinguishing between two people carrying the same name: the same Luqa registry lists Andrea Ellul Ta’ Mona, Andrea Ellul Ta’ Lanzik and Andrea Ellul Ta’ Xandra.

He refers to the curious case of Carmelo Spiteri Ta’ Ċesri and Carmelo Spiteri Ta’ Laizar who not only had the same name and surname but also lived in the same street.

Some local councils are compiling the nicknames of people and families in the village. “This is very positive – it’s important they are recorded as part of the cultural heritage and the collective memory of the location,” Dr Cassar said.

Contrary to popular belief, nicknames are not a male domain. “Let’s just say that nicknames are more cons­picuous among men, but they are not uncommon for women. Especially in villages there are women who have their own specific nickname – sometimes inherited from their husbands or their fathers.”

Records of women’s nicknames can be found in manuscripts dating back to the Inquisition era at the time of the Knights. “It is very likely that prostitutes at the time of the Order had their own nickname so they would be easily identified,” said Dr Cassar.

Nicknames are not a recent phenomenon – they were common in the classical era of Greece and Rome.

“A surname is after all a nickname that at one point in history was legally recognised,” Dr Cassar said.

Anatomy of a nickname (compiled by Grazio Falzon)

Most nicknames are preceded by the preposition ta’ – of – such as Toni tal-Ġgant and Marija tal-Għoqdija. A person may be specifically referred to by the definite article plus the nickname such as Il-Ħotbi (the hunchback), Il-Qanfud (the hedgehog).

Nicknames that describe a personality trait are the most expressive. Typical examples are Ta’ Tontu (stupid); ix-Xewwiex (troublemaker); tal-Pupa (doll); Tal-Patann (chubby); Tal-Iżdingat (sloppy).

The case of the village nicknames

Old towns and villages have their own nicknames – most originated when villages were more isolated and parochialism verged on hostility. Grazio Falzon, who carried out a study on nicknames, makes reference to the rivalry between neighbours Tarxien known as tar-Redus, due to the high incidence of goat herders there, and Paola.

On Paola feast day, the band club played a tune mimicking the bleating of goats. “Paolites baa’ed along with the march; which was just too much for Tarxienians – violence erupted,” writes Mr Falzon.

Some nicknames owe their origins to legends. People from Żejtun are known Ta’ Saqaj­hom Ċatta (flat-footed). Mr Falzon writes that, according to legend, the inhabitants were the only Maltese who did not take to Saint Paul’s teachings when he was shipwrecked here. They stubbornly “stamped their feet” and earned a flat-footed curse.

But there’s worse: people from Birkirkara are called Ta’ Sormom Ċatt (flat-bottomed); those from Ħamrun are either Tas-Sikkina (knife carriers) or Ta’ Werwer (“We frighten people off” ; city people are called ‘Tal-Palestina’ (“Because we’re always against everybody – we used to fling stones at our opponents at football games,” said one from Valletta).

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