History’s 10 Most Disparaging Nicknames | History Hit

History’s 10 Most Disparaging Nicknames

Tim Weinberg

29 Sep 2020

Sobriquets, or nicknames, have recurring tropes: they are usually given by others, are descriptive and often make the actual name superfluous.

In Britain we have had monarchs known as ‘The Confessor’ and ‘The Lionheart’. These appendages are known as cognomen and no further explanation is usually needed to identify the subject of one.

With this in mind, the following historical figures must have done something fairly extreme to deserve their nicknames. Many more have been fated to go through their lives known as ‘Bad’, ‘Bald’, ‘Bastard’, ‘Bloody’, ‘Butcher’ – and those are just the Bs…

Ivar the Boneless (794-873)

The origins of Ivar’s nickname remain unknown. It may have referred to an inability to walk, or perhaps a skeletal condition, such as Osteogenesis Imperfecta. It was said that his mother was a known sorceress and cursed her own offspring. But it’s equally possible that this is an incorrect translation of ‘Ivar the Hated’.

In 865, along with his brothers Halfdan and Hubba, Ivar invaded England at the head of what was known as the Great Heathen Army. They did so to avenge the death of their father Ragnar, whose own unfortunate nickname can be found below.

On the orders of the Northumbrian king Aella, Ragnar had been thrown into a pit of snakes. The Vikings’ revenge on Aella was a particularly gruesome execution.

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Viscount Goderich ‘The Blubberer’ (1782-1859)

Frederick John Robinson, 1st Earl of Ripon, was the British Prime Minister between August 1827 and January 1828. A member of landowning aristocracy, he rose through politics thanks to family connections. Frederick also supported Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery, and was regarded as one of the most liberal of MPs.

On becoming Prime Minister, he found that he was unable to hold-together the “fragile coalition of moderate Tories and Whigs” formed by his predecessor, George Canning, so Goderich resigned after just 144 days. This makes him the briefest-serving Prime-Minister ever (who didn’t die in office). His nickname was earned by shedding tears over fatalities incurred during rioting against the Corn Laws.

In the current climate old Freddie would be called a ‘snowflake’, and probably wear that as a badge of honour. One of those fascinating figures that the 18th and 19th centuries only infrequently produced, Frederick was a progressive liberal from a privileged background who was prepared to be ridiculed for his (seemingly), revolutionary beliefs.

earl of ripon

Frederick John Robinson, 1st Earl of Ripon by Sir Thomas Lawrence (Credit: Public Domain).

Eystein the Fart (725-780)

Of the House of Yngling, Eystein fret (Old Norse for ‘Eystein the Fart’) is the name given without comment or reason not only in Ari Thorgilsson’s fantastical Islendingabok, but also Snorri Sturluson’s superlative and generally dependable histories.

Eystein supposedly drowned on returning from a raid on Varna, when King Skjold – a known wizard – blew into Eystein’s sails, causing a boom to swing and knock him overboard. In this instance of a supremely ironic death, his farts could not save him. His son succeeded him. His name, Halfdan the Mild, was a much more palatable name for a king.

King Eystein is knocked off his ship. Illustration by Gerhard Munthe (Credit: Public Domain).

Ragnar Hairy Pants (legendary, possibly died circa.845)

Father of the previously mentioned Ivar the Boneless, Ragnar is probably more a figure of fantasy than historical fact. He earned his name Ragnar Lodbrok or Ragnar Hairy Breeches because of the pants he wore when slaying a dragon or giant serpent.

Although this sounds fantastic, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a usually reliable contemporary source – has Ragnar, more realistically, as a warlike King of Denmark of the 9th century, terrorising England and France, even reaching Paris. He was eventually shipwrecked off Northumbria, where he met his end in the aforementioned snake-pit.

A page from the entry for 871, a year of battles between Wessex and the Vikings, from the Abingdon II text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Credit: Public Domain).

Pericles: Onion Head (c. 495-429 BCE)

The son of Athenian politician Xanthippus and Agariste, a member of the Alcmaeonidae family, Pericles was born for greatness. According to historians Herodotus and Plutarch, Pericles’ fate was sealed by a dream his mother had, that she was to give birth to a lion.

The lion, of course, is a great beast, but it might have also contributed to the myths surrounding his large head. He was a figure of fun to contemporary comedians and was called ‘Onion Head’, or more specifically ‘Sea Onion Head’.

Plutarch claims this was the reason Pericles was never seen without a helmet, conveniently overlooking the authority it symbolised.

Alphonso IX of Leon: The Slobberer (1171-1230)

Many Medieval kings were known for their mouth-foaming rages, but only poor Alphonso IX of Leon and Galicia, got stuck with this nickname. He was, in fact, a good leader, promoting modernisation (he founded the University of Salamanca) and some democratic ideals. He called Western Europe’s largest and most representative parliament at that time.

Perhaps the name comes from his many enemies made during his run-ins with the Pope. Alphonso married his first cousin and was excommunicated for using Moslem troops. Popular, however, with his own clergy, The Slobberer was one of the better leaders on display here.

Miniature of the king Afonso VIII of Galicia and Leon, 13th century (Credit: Public Domain).

Louis the Sluggard (967-987)

What can you say about Louis V of France or ‘Louis Le Faineant’? A man who did so little as to deserve this name isn’t going to be a powerhouse of personal dynamism.

The product of a pushy father, Louis was groomed for the regal life from a very young age, attending governmental meetings by age 12. Married at 15 to the 40-year old Adelaide-Blanche of Anjou for better dynastic relations, he was too much of a sluggard to even do his royal duty. She left him two years later, their marriage unconsummated.

His death without heirs, aged 20 in a hunting accident, signalled the end of the Carolingian Dynasty.

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Charles XIV of Sweden: Sergeant Pretty Legs (1763-1844)

Charles XIV was King of Norway and Sweden from 1818 until his death, the first monarch of the Bernadotte dynasty. From 1780 he served in the French Royal Army, reaching the rank of Brigadier General.

Although he had a rocky relationship with Napoleon, he was named a Marshall of the newly proclaimed French Empire. His nickname came from his smart appearance, somewhat of an achievement considering the self-consciously sartorial French.

Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584)

Here’s one you must have heard of. You’ve got to be a special sort of ruler to be known as ‘Terrible’. He murdered political opponents and banned free speech in Russia. Deeply paranoid and suspicious by nature, Ivan would slaughter an entire city, based on hearsay of plotting.

He even killed his own son, also named Ivan, his only legitimate heir. Ivan the Terrible’s own wrath effectively ended his dynasty.

ivan the terrible

Portrait of Ivan IV by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897 (Credit: Public Domain).

Karl ‘Turd Blossom’ Rove (1950-)

A turd blossom is a Texan term for a flower which grows from dung. It’s also the name George W. Bush gave to his political advisor Karl Rove, one of the architects of the Iraq War.

Since leaving the White House, Rove has worked for Fox News and despite Trump’s aversion to the Bush Family, ‘Turd Blossom’ seems to have the President’s ear on how to salvage ‘swing States’.

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Tim Weinberg