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Nicknames -- a bit of harmless fun or vicious bullying?

Thinking about Prince Charles's bestowal on his Asian friend Kholin Dhillon of the soubriquet "Sooty", and Mr Dhillon's mute acceptance of what might elsewhere be classed as a racist gibe, I was instantly transported to the Norwich School playground, circa 1975, and the dozens of nicknames -- all of them racist, obscene or otherwise offensive -- that seethed within it.

One classmate of mine was known as "Chink" on account of his sallow complexion and slanted eyes. There was long-haired, acne-pitted boy who masqueraded as "Scab-lad", and hatfuls of "Dopeys", "Pinheads" and "Tuftys" (a boy called David Mason who was thought, while drinking his tea in the prefects' room, to look unaccountably like a squirrel).


Hardly anyone ever complained, though I have an idea that the unveiling of "Scab-lad" produced a very nasty altercation.

The point about these periodic renamings was their essential arbitrariness. While some stemmed from skin colour, or supposed mental inadequacy, others seemed to be plucked ready-made from the sky.

However mysterious their derivations, nicknames tend to be conceived in roughly the same way: a sudden flaring of conceptual glee in which the namer looks at the named and, for the first time, recognises some quality that will define him or her unofficially.

Like their origins, the motivation behind these re-christenings is never quite clear. It can range from the appreciation of a talent through to simple victimisation.

Mr Dhillon's dealings with the Prince of Wales are a private compact which it would be presumptuous of us to expect to infiltrate. Then again, you rather doubt that Mr Dhillon has his own nickname for the prince.