TaglineGuru It's your brand on the line. (sm)
Sobriquets: Names for People Who Need No Introduction

Take My Slogan

The Rhetoric of
Brand Messaging

Make Sure Your Messages Are

The Marketing
Wisdom of the Godfather

Give Your City a
Motto Makeover

Message Makeover: How a
Communications Audit...

Make Your
Old Brand New

An Advertising
Jingle is Priceless

By Eric Swartz, TaglineGuru

Membership in fame’s fifteen minute club is getting awfully crowded. Warhol saw that one coming long before we had blogs, reality TV, and the 24/7 tabloid media.

However, let us be careful we don’t confuse these flash-in-the-pans with the celebrated elite – those rarefied individuals who have a legitimate claim to fame or have sufficiently endured the glare of the spotlight to earn exclusive membership in their own club.

I am referring, of course, to our culture’s most treasured, and often trashed, celebrities upon whom it is customary to bestow a name that is theirs and theirs alone, whether they like it or not: a sobriquet.

What is a Sobriquet?

A sobriquet is a public and formal name that illustrates a person’s distinctiveness or notoriety. Thought to be of Celtic origin, it can be traced back to the 14th century Old French term, soubsbriquet, meaning to “chuck under the chin” – a method by which the common folk could mock and flout the noble class. Henry Watson Fowler, the early 20th century English lexicographer, felt that sobriquets were something to be discouraged and avoided, and referred to them as “battered ornaments” of the language.

Sobriquets have been around as long as society has honored its deities, heroes, and leaders, and disparaged its fallen public figures and evildoers. Names such as “The Almighty,” “The Prince of Peace,” and “The Prince of Darkness” have earned a hallowed place in the Sobriquet Hall of Fame; and names like “The Great Emancipator,” “The Yankee Clipper,” “The King of Pop,” and “Lucky Lindy” garner instant recognition.

A sobriquet is a shortcut to greater-ness. It enhances stature and confers iconic status. With a sobriquet, you’re not just famous, you’re renowned. You have a name with quotes around it. You’ve become an institution. In sum, you need no introduction.

Today, sobriquets usually spring from the minds of journalists, publicists, copywriters, songwriters, critics, and comedians (as well as worshippers, fans, and teammates). It is rarely known how, when, or where a sobriquet comes into being – its creator preferring to remain anonymous. As soon as the appellation catches on with the public, though, the celebrity in the crosshairs gets chucked for good or ill, and usually for a lifetime.

It should be pointed out that a sobriquet is not a nickname, which is given by parents or friends. Nicknames are used in lieu of one’s given name, such as “Yogi,” “Sparky,” “Tiger,” or “Scooter,” or can be an abbreviation or derivation of one’s surname, such as “Trane” for John Coltrane, “Bogie” for Humphrey Bogart, or “Yaz” for Carl Yastrzemski.

Sobriquets are also not stage names, aliases, pen names, or pseudonyms, which are used to disguise or replace one’s legal name, such as “Tom Thumb” for Charles Stratton, “Mata Hari” for Margaretha Zelle, or “Georges Sand” for Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin.

The Earmarks of a Personal Brand

Any person from any profession or station in life can have a sobriquet, although it seems the world of sports, entertainment, politics, and crime has a disproportionate number of celebrated heroes and goats. The famous Indian chiefs, such as “Sitting Bull,” “Red Cloud,” and “Crazy Horse,” truly live up to their sobriquets. These names echo their sacred identity, reflect their greatness, and inspire reverence in others.

Sobriquets typically focus on the actions or attributes of individuals as evidenced by their character, skill, strength, personality, appearance, authority, or distinctive achievements:


“Tricky Dick” (Richard Nixon) and “Honest Abe” (Abraham Lincoln) are on opposite ends of the character spectrum; and the “Saint of the Gutters” (Mother Teresa) is in a league by herself.


Ronald Regan’s speaking skills earned him the sobriquet of “The Great Communicator.” The silent film star, Lon Chaney, Sr., was the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and Annie Oakley received the name of Watanyacicilla (“Little Miss Sure Shot”) from the great Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, who marveled at her shooting ability.


When it comes to strength, our sports heroes top the list – from “The Bonecrusher” (James Smith) and “The Refrigerator” (William Perry) to “The Iron Horse” (Lou Gehrig) and “The Sultan of Swat” (Babe Ruth). Even cartoon superheroes can have sobriquets, such as “The Man of Steel” (Superman).


Sobriquets that describe a dominant personality trait include “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” (Harry Truman), “The It Girl” (Clara Bow), “America’s Sweetheart” (Mary Pickford), and the “Queen of Mean” (Leona Helmsley).


What you see is what you get with the sobriquets “Pretty Boy Floyd” (Charles Floyd), “The Great Profile” (John Barrymore), “Wilt the Stilt” (Wilt Chamberlain), and “His Rotundity” (John Adams).


Sobriquets pay homage to those at the top of their game who have reached the pinnacle of fame. For example, we’ve got the “King of the Cowboys” (Roy Rogers), “Queen of Soul” (Aretha Franklin), “Chairman of the Board” (Frank Sinatra), and “Master of Suspense” (Alfred Hitchcock).


Sobriquets recognize people’s singular achievements as well as deeds gone awry, such as “The Comeback Kid” (Bill Clinton), “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” (James Brown), “Wrong Way Corrigan” (Douglas Corrigan), and “Typhoid Mary” (Mary Mallon).

Sobriquets say a lot about people metaphorically – associating them with things they resemble or that evoke their special talents:

  • Place

“Tennessee Tailor” – Andrew Johnson

  • Mode of Transportation

“The Bus” – Jerome Bettis

  • Tool

“The Hammer” – Tom DeLay

  • Appliance

“The Human Vacuum Cleaner” – Brooks Robinson

  • Song

“Bad Moon” – Andre Rison

  • Movie

“The Wizard of Oz” – Ozzie Smith

  • Fruit

“Johnny Appleseed” – John Chapman

  • Beverage

“Lemonade Lucy” – Lucy Webb Hayes

  • Body Part

“Lou the Toe” – Lou Groza

  • Article of Clothing

“White Shoes” – Billy Johnson

  • Natural Phenomenon

“Thunder” – Jesse Jackson

  • Another Person

“The Valentino of Song” – Russ Columbo

Sobriquets also emphasize the three essential elements: animal (“The Snake” – Carmine Persico); vegetable (“Shrub” – George W. Bush); and mineral (“Diamond Jim” – James Brady).

If a regional, state, or national affiliation isn’t grand enough, then perhaps a sobriquet with global appeal works best, such as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” (Al Jolson). If the world is too limiting, then “The Greatest” (Muhammed Ali) will have to suffice.

Individuals aren’t the only entities that have sobriquets. Groups of individuals, such as bands, sports teams, and other organizations, have their own unique persona and brand identity. For example, who isn’t familiar with “The Fab Four” (The Beatles); “The Rat Pack” (Frank, Dean, Sammy, Joey, and Peter); “The Bums” (Brooklyn Dodgers); “Big Blue” (IBM); and “Camelot” (The Kennedy Administration)?

When Your Reputation Precedes You

Several months ago, when W. Mark Felt stood in his doorway and waved to the cameras, it was a truly surreal moment. After all, here was a guy who was known for more than 30 years as “Deep Throat,” and finally we had a name and a face to go with the sobriquet. But did it really make that much of a difference? Although he was a pivotal person in one of the century’s most intriguing stories, hardly anyone (except for Bob Woodward and a few others) knew anything about him. But his sobriquet said it all…and that’s how we’re going to refer to him for years to come.

Even if the true identity of “Jack the Ripper” became known, I don’t believe it would get more than a footnote in history. What if the real Ripper’s name turned out to be Clive? Are we going to start calling him “Clive, the Ripper?”

Sobriquets are here to stay…as are the people to whom honor or derision is given. If history and society deem it so, then it’s all right with me. I feel good knowing we have a “King of Rock ‘n Roll,” “The Domestic Diva,” and “Charlie Hustle.” They have all earned a place at the table, and nobody can take their sobriquets away from them – not in fifteen minutes, fifteen days, or fifteen years.

Instant fame may be fleeting, but sobriquets are forever.

© 2005 Eric Stephen Swartz. All rights reserved.