Hopkins County Folk Lore
By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin
The South is the best place to find interesting names especially nicknames and no place does it better than Kentucky.
Some names are just shortened as they are in other places on the planet. For instance, we all know Billy or Willie is short for William, Robert is called Bobby, and you can bet, that man you know as Jimmy is really a James in disguise. We call Charles Chuck, refer to Margaret as Maggie, Susan as Sue and so on down the list of names. However, let me remind you, that these are legitimate names and we know where they come from. Nevertheless, there is another dark and mysterious world of nicknames where one may sit for hours, pondering the origin of them and still come up blank.
Now folks, I'm not talking about your ordinary nicknames here, no sirreeee. I'm talking about those god-awful monikers that are stuck on poor unsuspecting children for who knows what reasons. These innocent little tikes didn't ask to be called by names that seemed to describe how others thought they looked, talked, walked, or ate.
All these little kids were perfectly content to be called all manner of nicknames, that is until they got to be courtin' age. Then it became a red-faced affair for the teenager who was mustering up the courage to mingle with the opposite sex.
However, some people didn't mind the gaudy names stuck on them by family or friends. They continued to wear their alias, if not with pride, at least with acceptance, until they departed good ole Hopkins County for the afterlife. I wonder if God calls them by their given name as they pass through the Pearly Gates or by their nickname. Somehow, I just can't see God saying to one of his beloved children, "Welcome to Heaven Puddin', you made it"!
One of the worst nicknames I have ever heard was hung on a little boy called Chicken Eye. Everyone called him that, including his mother and father. I never knew what his real name was until he was a grown man. No one thought anything about it back then, that was just his name and no big deal was made out of it. That is until he was in his thirties. He rebelled mightily against his awful nickname and asked everyone to begin calling him by his birth name. That request didn't work, although some people tried to honor his wishes. It was doomed from the start as he was forever running into acquaintances that hadn't heard of his name change. Finally, he succeeded in his attempts, at least on the job, by introducing himself with his given name to the new people he met there. No one he worked with had any idea of that he was known all over the county as Chicken Eye. He was finally home free and his new co-workers would forever know him by his real name.
One day he was standing on the street corner in Madisonville, on his way to lunch with several of his fellow employees. Around the corner came his mother loaded down with sacks and bundles from a shopping spree. Spying her son standing in peaceful oblivion to her presence, she yells from a few feet away, "Hey Chicken Eye! Git over here and tote these sacks for me. Can't you see I'm about to drop dead"!
There were other eye names in our area of the county too. Wal Eye, Frog Eye, Perch Eye and Big Eye. Now it was obvious to most of us why some of these people had been given the descriptive titles they had, although no one mentioned it to their faces. Some of them, although not all, had what could be described as big eyes, not unpleasant mind you, just poppy eyes. Maybe their fathers used to fish a lot.
Isn't it also confusing that some men who are bald are hailed as both Hairy and Baldy? Doesn't make any sense, does it?
Now we go to handles that seem to have no rhyme or reason as to why people called them that. Stump was a good one, and I've heard my mother refer to him recently with that name although the man would now be in his eighties if he were still alive. She doesn't know why he was known as Stump and doesn't care either. He didn't have a wooden leg, wasn't known to limp, was not short; it was just a plain mystery. She had never even thought about it until I asked her and seemed quite puzzled as to why I would want this information in the first place. My own mother pinned the name of Chicken Little on me as a child. Try living with that one. It makes a child so insecure, and I'm blaming my mom right here and now for my odd curiosity. No wonder I grew up so different from the rest of my siblings and ask people the most ridiculous questions.
There were men who were nicknamed after animals. There was Tomcat, Cat, Cat Eye, Mad Dog, and Yellow Dog. You could also run into Bird and Snake if you were lucky.
Continuing with animal nicknames, there is one I'm still perplexed about. There was once this old man who used to walk all over the place. Up and down the highway he would stroll, to the store and back, sometimes several times a day. He usually carried a little sack containing some bit of something he had bought at Prow's Grocery or Sammy Ramsey's store. He wore a persistent, toothless smile but hardly ever said a word. No one can remember why he was known as Possum. Maybe we could have understood the nickname if he only came out at night and stood on the road, eyes flashing red in the headlights, but Possum was out and about in the daytime. Furthermore, he didn't even resemble a possum. Beats me.
Colors were used to describe certain people as well. A very blond boy was called Cotton Top. Evidently so impressed was he with his moniker he named his business "Cotton Top's Fine Food and Dining". The sub title below on the same neon sign read, "An elegant dining experience". Bubba's Garage and Salvage Yard was just across the road from the "fine elegant dining" restaurant. Most local people knew they were brothers, finding nothing odd about a fancy restaurant and a junkyard being located within spittin' distance of each other. It was the strangers who occasionally stopped for a nice dinner that were totally surprised. Evidently, Cotton Top's idea of an elegant restaurant consisted of white tablecloths where a small glass vase sat proudly in the center holding a lone plastic rose. The visitors actually went into cultural shock when Bubba eased himself up from the table in the corner. Wearing clothes stained with various oils and fluids, he sometimes proceeded to take the drink orders. Bubba served the cokes and ice tea, while clutching the straws with greasy fingernails, and always a slap on the back. While he was at it he never failed to mention the family business across the street that was available for spare parts for their vehicles, and at a cheaper price than they would find anywhere else at that.
A very blond, fair girl was called Blondie all her life. Of course, I can see where she would prefer Blondie to her birth name of Hortense. I kid you not. If people should visit her grave, they could find her easily, for Blondie is carved in large letters across the top of the headstone, while Hortense is barely discernible. I wonder if this was her request and if so, I can only say that I applaud her decision.
Of course, we understand why red-haired men were known as Red. Makes me wonder why large red-haired women were known as Big Red? Why were some people known as Blue, Blackie, Brownie or the worst yet, Pinkie? I knew this guy named Pinkie. He still possessed both his little fingers, didn't wear a tutu, and in fact was huge. Pinkie didn't mind that he had been given this nickname, seeming to ignore the puzzled looks on people's faces when he introduced himself.
There was two Punkin's living in the west end of the county at the same time, so the younger one was called Punkin' Head although they weren't related. There was a man with a houseful of kids called Doodle. Even his own children called him Doodle instead of Dad. However, Doodle is not on his tombstone and nobody, except immediate family, remembers which grave marker is his. Then there was Duper, who disliked his handle very much. Even the teachers in school called him Duper. He moved away after high school and when he came back for rare visits to his family, he insisted everyone call him by his "real" name, which wasn't much better than Duper.
There was a Googie in the north end of the county and he actually didn't mind his nickname. No wonder, he was so handsome and charming, the girls just flocked around him. Years later, I saw his marriage write up in the Madisonville Messenger. True to form, his name was listed as Googie.
Now we have the obvious nicknames given for a reason. There was Head who actually had a long, bullet shaped head with a bump on the back. He ran around with Smeller, who had a tendency to sniff everything he picked up. A tall man with matted hair and baggy clothes used to walk on the highway using a whittled tree limb as a walking cane. No one knew where he came from, just sort of appeared one day. Also, no one knew where he got the name of Booter. Maybe that was his real name, no one ever found out. As he walked by the houses, he often spied children playing in their yards. Reaching into his baggy pockets, he produced a handful of candy, which he threw to the kids. All the children were glad to see Booter coming. Tragically, Booter died in a house fire in the county. Another Booter came along years later, unrelated to the first one. Maybe it was because both of them had blond hair, I'm sure someone knows what the answer is.
Most nicknames are stuck on boys and men it seems. However, there is one woman who ranks right up there with the men. Not to speak ill of the dead, but I must describe her appearance so that it can be understood why she was called by her alias. No one knew her age; it was impossible to tell. She was quite chubby but at the same time had a long, pointed chin. There was actually a huge mole right in the middle of it too. I know what you're thinking right now, and I can assure you that no, I'm not exaggerating. She had no teeth at all, and her nose pointed down over her top lip. Each day she paraded around the community, and even on the hottest summer days, wore two and three dresses at a time. Around her head would be wrapped the most complicated array of scarves, worn turban style. She painted her face with bright red rouge and her lips, a bright red. Eyebrows were also drawn on in heavy black, resembling bat wings. She was also reported to be a lady of the night. When greeted, she always said, "Don't I look sharp, honey"? Thus, the moniker of Miss Sharp was stuck on her. She seemed to like it. A few of the older people in the community knew her real first name, but the nickname stuck. Until she died years and years ago, she remained the ultimate Miss Sharp.
In writing about the nicknames of Hopkins County, it has not been my intention to embarrass anyone. No real first names were stated with the exception of Hortense, who died in the late 1800's. Surnames or our subjects and their family members have not been disclosed as well. The fact remains however, if you want a study of unusual nicknames and why they are so popular, just visit any town in the county. Stop at a local, laid-back country store and ask your questions. You'll be answered with friendly responses and accommodated with more information than you probably want. I would be willing to bet the proprietor himself is a Buddy, Junior or Bubba. Welcome to Hopkins County!
Copyright © 2001 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Nancy Trice, © 2001