Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: A Source of Inspiration

Now this is the kind of thing that just makes a publisher’s day: Area Man Inspired by UNC Press Book! Your Career Choice Validated! Okay, so that’s not exactly the headline of this Charlotte Observer story that made my day, but it’s certainly how the story made me feel. The Observer introduces us to Belmont, NC, resident Jack Page, who, upon reading about southern naming practices in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, went on to ponder over the nicknames of his southern neighbors. For four years he kept a running list of nicknames that entered the public record through the obituary pages of the Observer.

From October 1999 to Dec. 10, 2003, Page’s early morning routine included feeding catfish fillets to the wild hawks in his backyard and then scanning the Observer’s obituaries for his list. He handwrote each name carefully into a blue spiral-bound notebook, then every few months would transfer those names to the computer.

“As I accumulated the names, I had things that I pondered,” said Page, now 77. “How did that person get that nickname? Did they like it? Did it reflect their personality?” (Read the full article here.)

I went digging around the original Encyclopedia to find the entry that might’ve inspired Mr. Page and found it in the Language section, under “Names, Personal.” It’s an interesting essay, alright, covering the commemorative (Washington), classical (Atticus), biblical (Jethro), congenial (Jimmy), double (Billy Bob and Tammy Jo), initials-only (J.R.), and ah, yes, nicknames:
Perhaps more than any other section of the country, the South is distinguished by picturesque names, including nicknames. From politics come William “Fishbait” Miller, the longtime doorkeeper of the House of Representatives; Goat Harris, an official in Durham, N.C.; Foxy Robinson, the water commissioner of Laurel, Miss.; and Shag Pyron, a former Mississippi football star and highway commissioner. The world of sports, too, glitters with the names of southern luminaries–Bear Bryant, Dizzy Dean, Mudcat Grant, Catfish Hunter, Bum Phillips, Vinegar Bend Mizell, and Oil Can Boyd.
Now some of those names I’d never heard of until reading them just now. But I’d love to take a look at Page’s list, which grew to some 600 nicknames over just four years–and those are just the nicknames that made the Charlotte paper.
The Encyclopedia is a classic that keeps on giving. We love it so much we’re doing it again–in parts, this time around. Instead of one huge tome, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture is being published in individual volumes based on the sections that formed the original book, and the folks at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, who sponsor the series, are guiding the updates, revisions, and additions to the contents as we go. We’re up to Volume 16, Sports and Recreation, coming out this December, and there will be 24 volumes before we’re through. The bit on nicknames you’ll find in Volume 5: Language, edited by Michael Montgomery and Ellen Johnson.
Thanks, John “Jack” Page, for your curious little trip into one of the South’s curiosities. May the Encyclopedia continue to fascinate and inspire.