Decades later, in the 1930s, Canadian writer Silver Donald Cameron was born.
His name had nothing to do with monetary standards, though. He wasn’t even born a “Silver.” He was simply Donald Cameron until the early 1970s, when he decided to adopt the name Silver to set himself apart from all the other Canadian men named Donald Cameron.
How did he come up with Silver? He didn’t. A friend gave it to him:
“Lard Jasus, b’y,” said folk-singer Tom Gallant, “you need a proper Cape Breton nickname.” I know what he means: Black John MacDonald as distinguished from John The Piper MacDonald and Gimpy John MacDonald and John By-The-Church MacDonald. What are my own characteristics? I’m short: what about Donald The Runt? Or Brief Donald? No, no dignity: if he had called himself Clubfoot George would we remember Lord Byron?
Tom struck a chord in his Yamaha, gazed at me. “That hair,” he said. It’s my most striking feature, prematurely grey hair, set off by black eyebrows and moustache. Don’t ask me how I got that color scheme, ask God: He did it. Children stop me in the street to ask me if I’m wearing a wig. Adults chalk it up to noxious personal habits and secret vices.
“That hair,” said Tom. “That’s it. Silver Donald Cameron.”
Cameron refers to himself as “Silver Donald” all over his website, awesomely.
Nicknames have been a tradition on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, for hundreds of years. They’re particularly popular among the coal miners, and tend to fall into several broad categories: place names, occupational names, patronymics, physical features, and personality traits.
Other nicknames based on physical features don’t tend to be as complimentary as “Silver.” They include “Buffalo Head,” “Potato Nose,” “Saucer Eyes,” “Popeye,” and “Bandy Legs.”
“Alex the Clock” had one arm that was shorter than the other. “Waterloo Dan” had backed into a hot stove in his youth and thereafter sported the brand “Waterloo No. 2” (written backwards) on his bum.
People don’t get to choose their own nicknames on Cape Breton, but let’s pretend for a moment that you live there and you get to choose yours. What would it be?
- Cameron, Donald. “By Any Other Name” Weekend Magazine 1973.
- Corbin, Carol and Judith A. Rolls. The Centre of the World at the Edge of a Continent. Sydney, Nova Scotia: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1996.
- Davey, William and Richard MacKinnon. “Nicknaming Patterns and Traditions among Cape Breton Coal Miners” Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region Spring 2001.
- MacAdam, Pat. “Cape Brenton Nicknames.” Cape Breton Post 16 Jan. 2008.