Word! The Language Column
National bombomastics

 Illustration: A football player with raised arms, next to him a male person with a speech bubble containing the text "The Butcher"
Football nicknames – a new discipline? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Hardly any footballers get away without a nickname, and fantasy knows no bounds here. These pet names demonstrate an affectionate approach to language, the pun involved and their own passion.

By Stephan Reich

Many years ago, as a student of German, I was sitting in one of those seminars you only attend out of duty. It was a nameless linguistics event, in which I spent most of the time looking forward to things I would rather be doing. But on that particular day the lecturer decided to give us a taste of onomastics – the study of names. It’s more of a marginal, minor subject that focuses on the origin, distribution and meaning of proper names. And one which I found hugely interesting, which is why this insight made such a lasting impression on me.

A new niche discipline

Correct me if I’m wrong – but as far as I know there isn’t an actual academic discipline for nicknames, unfortunately. I wish things were different. You see, nicknames – especially in sport – have always been a constant source of joy for me. A few years ago I was working on the transcription of a notebook for the magazine 11 Freunde, which was meant to be peppered with all kinds of football-related puns. One of the gimmicks I came up with was a list of footballer nicknames over four pages spread throughout the book. To which end I spent a whole working day researching odd nicknames and their origins. A wonderful day.

I mean, they’re familiar to everyone, the nation’s Kaisers and Bombers, names like Heintje and Terrier, Kugelblitz (ball lightning) and the Titans. One or two people even know who “die Katze von Anzing” (the Cat from Anzing) is, or why Reiner Krieg used to be called “der Apparat” (the Machine). But if you go beyond the classics and take an in-depth look at the subject, infinite expanses of fantastic nicknames are unlocked, an endless imaginative and affectionate play on language and its humour, by people who love the game: the fans. And that’s probably what I like so much about the nicknames, whether they are clever, pretentious, inelegant, spiteful: the fact that they are an expression of that humorous and also ironic relationship with a confounded passion of their own, with which many fans go through their day-to-day life.

At this point I’d like to justify the linguistic niche-niche of footballer nicknameology, if possible. National Bombomastics, you might say, or Uns-Uwomastics. Or El-Pibe-de-Oromastics. Mach-et-Otzomastics. Maradona of the Balkansomastics. Please go ahead and pick a name, when I flicked through the pages of my old notebook looking for pun inspiration I couldn’t make up my mind. But it would be a thrilling discipline.

Butchers and professors

Well then, why not? A quick survey of the notebook of old shows that there are also special categories of name origin within the discipline of Mach-et-Otzomastics (so I have decided on one after all). Professional descriptors, such as Lisandro “The Butcher” Martinez or Ralf Rangnick the Professor. But on closer inspection this is more about attributes, which overall probably form the largest category and in turn can be divided into diverse sub-groups. The Butcher fits right into the hardcore category, where the lads have names like Dieter “Eisenfuß” Höttges (ironfoot), Iron Maik (Maik Franz), Vinnie “The Axe” Jones or – feet in the air! – the Butcher of Bilbao (Andoni Goikoetxea). Rangnick on the other hand fits into the cleverclogs category, which is also populated by Mozart (Thomas Broich), El Bibliotecarios (Chico Geraldes) or the rather absent-minded Zettel-Ewald (Ewald Lienen). There are countless subcategories of attribute descriptors, with a unique one dedicated to every character trait shown by a player on the field. We salute sharpshooter Bomber-style strikers Knipser (Harry Decheiver) and Toni Doppelpack (Toni Polster), stamina midfielders like Three-lungs-Park (Ji-sung Park), Duracell (Joao Moutinho) and the little “Lawnmower” (Stig Töfting) or even header specialists like Carsten “Air” Bäron, Schädel-Harry (Skull Harry; Harald Karger) or “The Helicopter” (Vahid Hashemian).

Equally prevalent are attributes involving external appearance, which are found in proper onomastics for instance in family names such as Klein or Groß, in Mach-et-Otzomastics we see examples like Schöner Bruno (“Pretty” Bruno Labbadia), Spargeltarzan (“Beanpole” Hannes Bongartz) or the Funkturm (Uwe Kliemann was dubbed the radio tower due to his tall stature). The animal name category is enormous too. Duck, bull, beaver, rabbit, llama, the Isar Valley Panther, the Maroon Butterfly – or simply: the animal in goal. To name just a few. And some names completely defy categorisation, they are just there, and they are magnificent: The Ear. The Soul. The Tollbooth. Meier-Schaschlik. The Rabbit with the Gun.

In the library or on the pitch?

If I had paid more attention in that seminar back in the day, maybe I would now have been able to add scientific scaffolding to Mach-et-Otzomastics, formulate questions that need answering, propose faculty areas – but heck, maybe I would just use this moment to deliver a seminar on the subject of football club nicknames, somewhere at a linguistics faculty, and use grand gestures to elaborate why the players of Estudiantes La Plata are known as the Rat Stabbers. Maybe I would spend my days in the library and write a book about the remarkable ways in which fans, players or media creators spawned the quirkiest footballer nicknames. But fate did not want it to be thus. Maybe that’s a good job – the great thing about nicknames is the way they take on a strange and semi-magical life of their own. They do what they want, emerge unexpectedly, sometimes disappearing or other times hanging around, and then they belong to the bearer, even whilst eluding their influence. And maybe I don’t really even want to put them into categories, instead I just want to delight in them.

Incidentally, a few years back I was once responsible for a nickname myself. I once mixed up player Kevin Behrens with his name-buddy Hanno Behrens in a text, and because a few of his colleagues at Rot-Weiß Essen read it, they called him Hanno from then on. Kevin “Hanno” Behrens spoke about that in an interview, and also the fact that he didn’t like the nickname at all. I’ve never spoken to Behrens, but maybe this column is an appropriate platform for me to apologise to him. By way of compensation he’s welcome to have my nickname, a name once given to me by a grumpy spectator in my youth. After a contentious scene he yelled at me across the whole pitch: “What are you trying to do, you stork?”

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.