Hey Clyde, Who’s That Harvey?

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Slang changes from one generation to the next, but one thing remains constant: personal names are a frequent source.

Here are just a few personal names that have or have had slang meanings.

Charlie/Charley – This name has lent itself to a variety of uses. To call a person “a right Charlie” is to call him an idiot. American soldiers in Viet Nam called the Viet Cong “Charlie,” presumably because of the abbreviation V.C. for Viet Cong. The initials translate to Victor Charlie when given the usual military clarification words. Another theory is that “Charlie” attached to the Asian enemy because “Charlie” already existed as a term for an Asian man, thanks to the popularity of the Charlie Chan movies made from 1931-1949.

Clyde – “a person who behaves conventionally”

Harvey – I always associate the name Harvey with the large rabbit in the James Stewart film of the same name. As used by Sinatra’s Rat Pack in the 60s, it meant “a man or woman who acts in a stupid or naive fashion.”

Herbert – “a dull, objectionable person” Reader Kristy points out that “Herbert” is used as a term of address for Captain Kirk in the “The Way to Eden,” a StarTrek episode in which the Enterprise rescues a band of hippies in search of Paradise.

Jerry – British military slang name for the German enemy in World Wars I and II. It could derive simply from a play on the word “German.” A more creative theory is that the British soldiers selected the name because they thought the German helmet resembled a chamberpot called a “jerry” (short for “jeroboam”).

Nancy/Nancy boy – The first time I noticed hearing “Nancy boy” was from the mouth of Spke in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. Nance derives from the female name Nancy. It was used as an adjective meaning “effeminate” as early as 1883. Its use as a noun, meaning “effeminate man or homosexual,” is recorded from 1904.

Patsy – Although it looks like a personal name, the word patsy in the sense of “person who takes the blame,” or “easy victim of deception,” may derive from an Itallian word: either standard Italian pazzo, “madman,” or Italian dialect paccio, “fool.” Another theory traces the word to a character in an 1880s minstrel show: Patsy Bolivar. Patsy was blamed for anything that went wrong.

Sheila – Australian slang for “woman.”

Tommy – The word Tommy to stand for any British soldier originated in the 19th century. Recruits were shown a sample form. The name on the sample was “Tommy Atkins.” In the U.S. during the 60s, the epithet “Tom” carried the meaning of “black person servile to white people.” The word in this sense derives from Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The character Uncle Tom is a slave who turns the cheek to all kinds of horrible treatment from his white masters. Despite his many Christian acts of kindness and loyalty, he dies from a beating he receives at the hands of Simon Legree’s servants.

If you are looking for appropriate slang for your fictional characters, here are some links that may be of use:
Australian slang dictionary
More slang meanings for “Charlie”
Sinatra Slang Glossary
60s Slang Dictionary

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5 thoughts on “Hey Clyde, Who’s That Harvey?”

  1. Evo,
    I didn’t want to go there!

    Charlie is also used in a few more senses that I decided were best left to my source: hence the link.

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