Malta Diary: What’s in a name? Better a nickname!
The passage of time has not made nicknames any the less popular in the Maltese Islands. Some have a family nickname that is inherited by each new generation. Others are more impromptu. For example, a person who is fair-skinned and blushes easily would quickly be labelled “l-ahmar” (the Red One) and would retain that nickname to his grave. A person who wheels and deals and confuses becomes “kawlatu” (the Minestrone Maker).
Indeed it is not uncommon to be in a locality, ask for a person by name and receive blank stares. Mention his nickname and quickly comes back the response “oh him…yes, turn left here and then right and he lives on the corner, the house with a red balcony. Why didn’t you mention his nickname in the first place?”
For islands so small – the whole of Malta and Gozo with a population of 420,000 are an average sized town on the European mainland – the varieties of nicknames identifying people by their locality is amazing.
I will start off with my home town SLIEMA. We are known as “Tax-Xelin” (the Shilling People) or alternatively “Tal-Pepe” (the Haughty-Taughty People). The shilling panhandle is because in the past great numbers of men in the Sliema area took the “Queen’s Shilling” eagerly and joined the British Military to serve the British Sovereign. Because of this connection with the British, the English Language was common parlance in the area and this was regarded by the rest of Malta as being highly effete and thus the Sliema people classed themselves to be above the rest of the common herd, were arrogant and tended to look down on fellow Maltese.
The people from my wife’s town of birth HAMRUN are known as “Tas-Sikkina” (The Knife People) often mistakenly taken to signify they thirsted for a fight, were quarrelsome and tended to resort to the knife. In actual fact, this was not the reason. Hamrun had the first bagpipe and drum brigade. They wore Scottish kilts and sported a dirk in their stocking. The band played in various localities and when they arrived the cry would go up “the Knife People are here!”
VALLETTA is Malta’s capital city and its inhabitants identified as “tas-City” (the City people) and alternatively as “tal-Palestina” because of three nights of continual strife between the people of Strait Street (the red light area) and British troops returning from duty in Palestine in the late 50s, while the people of the neighbouring suburb of FLORIANA are known as “ta’ l-Irish” (of Irish descent) because of the barracks of the Irish Guards that were stationed there and because their football club Floriana FC adopted the green and white colours of Ireland.
Three of the oldest cities are commonly known as “The Three Cities” clustered on the north side of the Grand Harbour in an area commonly known as Cottonera after the Grandmaster Cotoner. Their nicknames however are distinct from each other.
The people of SENGLEA are known as “Ta’ Cacu” because they have a fame for being boastful and showing off and it is said that when a family occasionally cooked a chicken (a luxury then) they spread the feathers around their front door to let everybody know.
Inhabitants of VITTORIOSA are known as “Tat-Toqba”, (From The Hole) a seaside area where people went to bathe but more commonly because they entered the city through a very narrow gate which was said to resemble a hole in a wall!
Much to their annoyance, the people of COSPICUA became known as “Ta’ Baharhom” (Having their own Sea), an irony because their waterfront was grabbed first by the Knights and then the British to be used as a dockyard.
Two of the quaintest nicknames because they are a source of mirth are attached to the two largest and most ancient inland towns, BIRKIRKARA and QORMI.
The people of Birkirkara are known as “Ta’ sormhom catt’ (the People with Flat Asses i.e. posteriors!) because they are reputed to be lazy and spend their day sitting down doing nothing and hence have developed flat asses.
The Qormi inhabitants are “Sa nofsinhar irgiel” (Only Manly up to 12 Noon). Since the time of the Knights in the 16th and 17th Centuries, right to the present, the Qormi area is famed for baking Malta’s delicious bread. To meet early morning demands the bakers worked through the night but on the chimes of noon retired for their well-earned siesta before starting baking again, and hence their manliness only lasted up to 12 noon.
One of the quaintest family nicknames I have heard is “ta’ jghix bir-rix” (the One who Lives on Feathers). One of the family’s ancestors had a poultry farm and sold live or plucked chickens, and hence made a living out of feathers!
Just to round off, my family and I do not have a nickname but when I worked in London as a student many years ago, my parents used to provide me with an elaborately packed lunch every day. The business was a beer-bottling company in Vauxhall and there were a number of single Maltese men there and they often looked at my lunch enviously and hence I became known as “The Picnic”. Thankfully that was forgotten when I eventually left!