Scalito & Scooter

Two nicknames have been in the news as of late. The first is Scalito, a name given to Samuel Alito, President Bush’s latest nominee to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court. The nickname is a play on two names, Alito’s and that of Justice Antonin Scalia. Both judges are very conservative and the blending of their names emphasizes the similarities in their respective judicial philosophies.

Alito’s nickname is just about a year old, or at least that’s as far back as the blog search engine Technorati (http://www.technorati.com) can trace it. On 4 November 2004, the blog Serendipity contained this fragment, "With old Rehnquist’s health in decline, rumor has it that Samuel A. Alito Jr… been nicknamed Scalito because is just like Antonin Scalia." Unfortunately, that blog no longer exists and all that is left is this fragment returned by Technorati. But even without the entire context, it is clear that the blog’s author did not coin the term.

The use of the nickname Scalito is pretty much restricted to those who oppose Alito’s confirmation to a seat on the court. It is not a flattering nickname. Besides connoting that Alito is not an independent thinker, the –ito is Spanish suffix meaning little, a little Scalia as it were.

Not all nicknames are pejorative, however. Another Bush administration nickname in the news is Scooter, the moniker if Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby. Libby was indicted for perjury, lying to federal officials, and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak scandal. Libby uses the nickname himself, apparently preferring it to his given name—so much so that no one is really quite sure what the "I" stands for. At various times it is given as Irv, Irve, or Irving.

And the origin of his Scooter nickname is also in doubt. At various times Libby himself has told different stories about the origin. He has said his father dubbed him that as a baby after watching him scoot about his crib. On other occasions he has claimed that it was a childhood comparison with Yankee shortstop Phil Scooter Rizzuto. "I had the range, but not the arm," claimed Libby at one point.

We all know what a nickname is, but many of us probably don’t know how that word came to be. Why is it nick? The answer is in something linguists call metanalysis. The word was originally ekename, eke (additional) + name, and dates to the beginning of the 14th century. About 140 years later it had become nekename. Through the process of metanalysis, the N in the article an migrated to the noun, an ekename became a nekename.

Nickname is not the only example of metanalysis. Napkin is another example. The process works in the other direction as well. Orange was once naranj and apron was naperon.

The Bush administration is no stranger to nicknames. The president is, of course, Dubya (a reference to his middle initial W) or 43 (he is the 43rd president; his dad is 41). Bush, himself, is rather famous for bestowing nicknames on people. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the unflattering Pootie-Poot and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is Landslide. His advisor Karl Rove is alternately Boy Genius or Turd Blossom, depending on how the president feels about him that day. Colin Powell is The World’s Greatest Hero, a name that can be either positive or negative depending on tone of voice. Vice President Cheney is Big Time, a reference to a famous incident involving a four-letter word. Condoleezza Rice is Guru, after her tutoring in foreign policy, and not as the comic strip Doonesbury joked Brown Sugar. Three people share the nickname Big O, Senator Olympia Snowe, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and TV personality Bill O’Reilly. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is The Cobra, evidently for her venomous columns attacking the administration. Former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay was Kenny Boy, but Bush hasn’t been that chummy with him of late.

It is doubtful that Bush ever referred to Judge Alito as Scalito, although he has been known to call Harriet Miers Bulldog In Size 6 Shoes.

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