Crowned "King James" at the outset of a career that has yet to see him win a championship, Lebron James was dubbed so because that version of the Bible is common parlance. It had — and has, given that he's ruled nothing yet in the NBA — no relevance. Mr. James might as well be nicknamed "Vulgate." At least "King Carl" Hubbell won a World Series — and besides, Hubbell's other moniker, the "Meal Ticket," possessed more panache than an overblown royal title anyway.
Recently came the Dream Team, the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles — a tag laughably hyperbolic for a team yet to play a preseason game. Like King James, the Dream Team was anointed prematurely, but proclaimed so (as were the 1992 U.S. Men's Olympic basketball squad and O.J. Simpson's defense attorneys) simply because it's a catchy rhyme.
And converting verbal trifling to the visual, the Milwaukee Brewers' embarrassing "beast mode" bear-hug gestures, spotlighted during this year's stretch drive and playoffs nearly every time a Brewer got a hit, have spawned variants that the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers mindlessly replicated when they knocked an extra-base hit in the World Series.
Like many aspects of American culture and industry, we've grown lazy and uninventive with our nicknames. Short attention spans beget cut-rate culture, and our information and entertainment now are largely disseminated in sound bites, top-10 lists, and capsule descriptions. (Do we really need the winning score on the sports ticker highlighted yellow, or has American brain function fallen that far?) Compounding this, we've become a country of copycats: The electronic Westminster chimes played at Yankee Stadium when a Pinstripe crosses the plate now are heard in numerous ballparks; the Lambeau Leap is leapt in most NFL stadiums; each franchise's fan base calls itself a "nation"; all victorious hockey teams head-tap their goalie; walk-off baseball teams huddle at home plate and jump up and down; and, somehow, dumping Gatorade on a winning coach remains epidemic.
Kung Fu Panda isn't a nickname — it's a film title. You can't lift an unrelated name wholesale, attach it to Pablo Sandoval, and expect it to carry legitimacy. At least in Yogi Berra's day, when America still prided itself on its ingenuity, cartoon names were based on the players.
And the same goes for Vlad "the Impaler" Guerrero, Phat Albert Pujols (backronymic spelling aside), the insipid Billy "the Kid" Wagner (at least Ted Williams also was "Teddy Ballgame"), and the monumentally insipid "Big Ben" Roethlisberger, whose moniker technically is "Big" and exists only because of a clock that doesn't even look like him.
There was a time in America when sports writers sat back, puffed a stogie, and conjured truly lyrical sobriquets. Granted, in the days of Grantland Rice, the prose sometimes flowed too floridly (Babe Ruth was conferred more than two dozen nicknames, the majority increasingly asinine as rival sportswriters tried to top each other). But great nicknames, even for not-so-great players, abounded: the Big Train, the Yankee Clipper, the Fordham Flash, Charlie Hustle, Big Poison and Little Poison, Peanuts Lowrey and Pretzels Getzien, Ice Box Chamberlain and Piano Legs Hickman. (You can't nickname someone "Piano Legs" in these politically correct days without incensing the gout-ridden.)
Alas, our attention-deficited nation now roots in the era of ManRam, Starbury, Pat the Bat, and Hunter the Punter. I'm not sure who set American culture on this downward spiral — it could have been the self-dubbed and head-smackingly obvious Stevie "Guitar" Miller in the late sixties — but modern culture was mortally wounded by whomever christened Dennis Eckersley as "The Eck" and dealt a deathblow by whichever genius first typed "Brangelina" into his gossip column.
Should it be any surprise the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — an international forum committed to improving economic and social well-being — recently downgraded the United States to "average" in international education rankings? As a nation, we're not so bright anymore — and that's a dangerous flaw to combine with our lagging sense of invention.
How long until the Chinese surpass us in nickname quality? Sports and entertainment, like the games of ancient Rome, keep America blithely distracted from the hardships of reality, and our stars and celebrities, like the gladiators, keep us looking the other way. Dumb it down too much and our heroes lose their mystique — and, as in Rome, the system eventually falls apart.
After all, no Roman ever referred to Spartacus as "S.Thrace."
Randy S. Robbins, a writer and editor, lives in Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.