By Grazio Falzon


What's in a name? In the villages of
Malta and the sister island of Gozo, each family has its own nickname.
Individual persons may also have separate nicknames.

The Maltese word for nickname is
"laqam" (from "tlaqqam" meaning "to graft").
Indeed a nickname is grafted to the identity of a person, family or group and
serves as a social label. Surnames are mainly used for official reasons.

The Maltese proverb "Skond
ghamilek laqmek" (your nickname reflects your behavior) underlines the
personal and social implications of the endemic use of nicknames.

In general nicknames are rather
innocuous. When they refer to some weakness they are usually good-humored. A
few can be rude if not crude.

Most nicknames are preceded by the
preposition "ta" (of). One is referred to by first name followed by
family nickname. Thus: Toni tal-Ggant (giant), Marija ta'l-Ghoqdija (knotty). A
person may be specifically referred to by the definite article plus the
nickname. Thus: il-Hotbi (the hunchback), il-Qanfud (the hedgehog).

that describe a personality trait are the most expressive. Typical examples:
"ta' Tontu" (stupid); "ta' Xewwiex" (troublemaker);
"tal-Pupa" (doll); "tal-Patann" (chubby); "ta'
l-Izdingat" (sloppy); "tan-Nittien" (lecher); No wonder some
Maltese become paranoid about their nicknames. And there is no way one can get
rid of one's nickname. Everybody is stuck with their nickname(s) through thick
and thin.

Many nicknames derive from names of
animals. These nicknames provide insightin the psycho-social dimensions of
language. A quarter million Maltese coexist closely withlimited animal
resources. Maltese prize their animals but some islanders are notorious for
trapping or shooting migratory birds.

Here are a few examples of nicknames
derived from animals: "ta' Gelluxa" (young bull);
"tal-flieles" (chickens); "il-Kavall" (mackerel); "ta'
Hanfusa" (beetle); "tas-Summiena" (quail). A priest who was nicknamed
"il-Gurdien" (rat) is philosophical if not downright theological
about his sobriquet! He says he endures it as a purgatorial penance.


The most prevalent nicknames are those
referring to occupations; e.g. "tas- Surmast" (school principal),
"tas-Saqqafi" (roofer), "tal-Melh" (salt vendor),
"tar-Rizzi" (hawker of sea-urchins),"tas-Siggijiet" (man in
charge of chairs in churches).

Entire towns and villages are given
nicknames. These nicknames originated when villages and towns were isolated
from each other. This separation led to parochialism verging on hostility.

"Tar-Redus" (manure)
stigmatizes the town of Tarxien. This nickname triggered a violent disturbance
some years back. On the feast-day of the patron saint in the neighboring town
of Pawla, the local Band Club played a tune mimicking bleating of goats.
Pawlaites baa'ed along with the march; which was just too much for Tarxienians.
Violence erupted and police had to intervene.

Some village nicknames owe their origins to legends. Zeitun has a
peculiar nickname. Zeituners are known "ta' saqajhom catta"
(flat-footed). According to legend, the inhabitants of Zeitun were the only
Maltese who rejected the religion preached by Saint Paul after his shipwreck on
the island. They stamped their feet in protest to Paul's proseletyzing. The man
from Tarsus wasn't amused by this "barbarian" (not just in the
biblical sense:-) behavior and laid a curse on the villagers and their
descendants.(As a Zeituner my own feet are proof positive of the apostolic