Wednesday, August 27, 2014

O Captain, my Captain: the only rank in nicknames

Over the past months of being a parent I have noticed when I concoct an impromptu nickname for my infant son it often involves taking his mood or action and prefacing it with "captain" (and sometimes appending "pants" at the end); a slightly cranky boy is dubbed "Captain Fussypants," for example. It occurred to me that of all the military ranks with which I'm familiar—which are many—the go-to for these extemporaneous assignments is always "captain"; he's never "Sergeant Squirmy" even though that has some nice alliteration. Sure, "Captain Kickypants" flows well, but "Colonel Kickypants" or "Commodore Kickypants" would carry the same similarity of opening sounds—and could be even higher in rank.

I suppose I could conclude "captain" has its default status because that rank is both high enough to be respected ("Private Poopypants" seems clearly pejorative, for instance) but still holds room for advancement ("General Giggles" sounds like a jolly fellow sitting behind a desk, not one out there participating with the troops).

Certainly there's a linguistic element operating subconsciously, with the nice hard "k" sound to start and the distinct "t" sound kicking off the second syllable; not all the names of the other ranks have that advantage. Its two syllables are hold just enough "meat" when said aloud to be satisfying but not too many to trip up the tongue, but many other ranks are also two syllables so we cannot attribute too much to that alone.

All that said, I think it's far likelier the origin should be traced to the Captains America and Marvel from comic books and Saturday morning shows (the movies in the past decade came too late to be in my formative years). Sure, there was a "Sgt. Rock" comic, but he was an actual soldier fighting in wars, not a superhero taking on supervillians. It's not that other ranks were out of the question; they simply never seemed to catch on in popular culture (and hence couldn't influence my developing brain).

Although the specific means that term achieved its embedded status in my mind can be argued one conclusion is clear: When I'm dealing with an infant who is fussy or squirming or kicking or giggling I tend to have only enough brain power to devote to inventive language to come up with "Captain."

Once he starts speaking himself I probably should try to be more original (although with any luck more sleep might be of greater benefit there). But if not and someday any eventual grandchildren I have are "Captain ______" I could live with that.

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