One often hears that in many Maltese and Gozitan villages, most people are much better known by their nickname (laqam) rather than by their Christian name or surname. Nicknames have been used in the Maltese islands from time immemorial, perhaps due to the frequency and impersonality of certain popular names and surnames at the time. Nicknames therefore gave one the chance of using a more personal or individualised form of naming a person, while retaining the use of official names and surnames established by society only for the dotted line of the birth register.
The relation between an individual, or his/her family, and their nickname grew to be an intimate one. Maltese nicknames reveal the popular mind and bring back to life the world in which our forefathers lived. They are charged with social significance and can relate to particular cultural issues and mind-sets.
The use of nicknames has been prevalent in Malta and Gozo at all ages, and although very few written records have survived prior to the 15th century, one can still trace their evolution. Many of these, for example, were introduced from certain Maltese Semitic surnames or words possibly dating from the period of Arabic domination, while others reflect the close proximity of Malta to Sicily and Italy.
Maltese nicknames are formed by prefixing the definite article ‘l-‘ to a noun or an adjective, ex. ‘l-għannej’ (the singer) or ‘l-aħmar’ (the red-faced). In general, it may be said that this type of nickname denotes the first person to be so called, however his descendants or relatives may also share the same nickname, adding the pre-fix ‘tal-‘, for example ‘tal-Kutu’ (the family of the quiet one). To the present day in Malta, people describe themselves and are known by their descent, for example ‘Ġanni ta’ Pawlu’ (John son of Paul). Nicknames can also relate to geographical origin, like ‘tal-Ingliż’ (the family from England) could pertain to the children or grandchildren of an Englishman. These kinds of nicknames originate as the result of population movements, or following marriage or migration.
Physical nicknames are by far the most expressive, and at times can be even crude and offensive. They are usually taken from some aspect of the personality, or from a physical trait. For example ‘iz-zopp’ (the one with the limp) may refer to someone with a mobility impairment, ‘il-ginger’ (the one with the ginger hair) could refer to a blonde, ‘in-niexef’ (the lean one) could refer to someone who is excessively thin, and so on.
Another class of nicknames derives from plants and trees. For example ‘tal-ħarruba’ (of the carob tree) could refer to a family who owns a prominent carob tree, as would be the case for ‘tal-bajtar’ (of the prickly pears). Names of animals too could inspire certain nicknames, such as ‘tal-fenek’ (of the rabbit) which could refer to a family who owned or sold rabbits or rabbit meat. The most numerous types of Maltese nicknames are undoubtedly those which describe particular occupations. These are usually hereditary and very old, passing from one generation to another. Thus we find ‘tal-Kaptan’ (the captain’s family), ‘tal-Barun’ (the baron’s family), or ‘tas-Saqqafi’ (the roof constructor’s family), etc. There are even nicknames which derive from particular tools of a person’s trade, like ‘tal-Minġel’ (of the sickle) or ‘tal-Mekkuk’ (of the weaver’s shuttle).
The last century or so has also seen the emergence of new nicknames having a clear link to other sections of Maltese social life. We find nicknames which refer to band clubs, like for example ‘tal-Ajkla’, which refers to a La Vallette Club and ‘tal-Vitorja’, in reference to the Naxxar Parish band club.
Nicknames are a link to the ever changing perceptions of the Maltese population – they map our history, our traditions and even our states of mind. They also serve as a clear indication of the way Maltese language changed and evolved, while retaining ancient words and word formations that are no longer in use today.