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‘Sloppy Steve’ and Why Men Love to Give Each Other Nicknames

Michael Wolff’s highly anticipated tell-all book about the Trump administration, Fire and Fury, hit stores on Friday after being rushed into distribution, and it already seems destined to achieve bestseller status. (Anecdotally, the Barnes & Noble near the MEL office had sold out of its first shipment of the book by 10:30 a.m. on Friday, and the store manager was creating a waitlist of interested customers.)

Fire and Fury is rife with salacious details about the dysfunction of the Trump presidency. But one interesting tidbit that internet meme merchants quickly picked up on was President Trump’s penchant for giving his Cabinet members nicknames. The big reveal was Trump’s nickname for Breitbart executive chairman and Trump turncoat Steve Bannon, whom Trump referred to as “Sloppy Steve,” presumably because of Bannon’s infamously slovenly appearance. (The man perpetually looks like an alcoholic divorced dad who hasn’t shaved in three days.)

But nicknames aren’t merely a Trump thing. Or even a president thing — though George W. Bush famously handed them out, too, dubbing the Bannon in his life, political strategist Karl Rove, “Turd Blossom.” (Vladimir Putin was “Pootie-Poot”; former Speaker of the House John Boehner was “Boner”; and Cofer Black, director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, was “Flies on the Eyeballs Guy.”)

No, nicknames are decidedly a guy thing. For two reasons, according to linguistics and gender experts:

  1. Among peers, men give each other nicknames to establish camaraderie and belonging.
  2. Among bosses and their subordinates, nicknames are a means of asserting dominance.

“Nicknames are often tease-y,” says Occidental College sociology professor Lisa Wade. “They pick on something about a person — being short, tall, fat or skinny — and point it out.”

This kind of “shit talk” is a fundamental part of male bonding, Wade says. “In groups of men, you want to show you can throw harsh barbs, but also take them. And the tougher the ones you throw — and the harsher the ones you take — the higher up you are on this hierarchy.”

This isn’t done to be cruel, however, Wade points out. Men often use derogatory nicknames as a sign of trust and affection — “to show someone that you can know and push their soft spots, but not so hard that you’re going to actually hurt them.”

Among groups of male friends, nicknames also signify belonging and closeness, says Frank Nuessel, professor of linguistics at the University of Louisville. When only people in your friend group are privy to your nickname, the nickname, no matter how demeaning, is sacred. “You belong to this group, clique, gang, whatever you call it, and therefore, you have the right to use a person’s nickname,” he says. “And if someone wants to join the group, they have to accept the nickname you give them.”

While there’s little statistical evidence showing that giving nicknames is a distinctly male behavior, Nuessel says it does seem like a “male thing,” and is often learned playing sports.

Indiana University linguistics expert Michael Adams says that he’s unsure if nicknaming is a general a male phenomenon, but he’s certain that the serial nicknaming Trump favors is a predominantly male trait, especially when it occurs in adulthood. To neglect someone’s actual name, and instead refer to them by a nickname you give them, is to exert power over them. “One way to insist on your authority is to have the naming power over the people around you,” Adam says. “And this is something Trump obviously revels in, and as an autocratic business leader, he’s likely done it for decades.”

That must be why Trump calls himself “The Closer.”