Sometimes the name a person is given just isn’t enough. They’re too bad, too great, too weird, or the nickname you give them is too fun. Here are the ten greatest nicknames in history—and the people who inspired them.
10. Ulick of the Heads
Here’s what’s good about this one: you’re almost certain it’s bad, and yet it has that slight touch of mystery. Who knows? Maybe “of the heads” could mean “of the heads of state” of “of the headlands” or maybe it’s a historical thing.
Nope. Ulick of the Heads, also known as Mac William of Clan Rickard, was an Irish leader who chose to officially make full submission to the English king Henry VII, in order to be officially recognized as a lord by England. This did not go down well with some of the people around him, so he frequently went out and did battle with them. Guess what happened to the people he killed?
9. Eystein the Fart
This is a lesson on why you shouldn’t piss off a chronicler. Ari Thorgilsson was a chronicler in Iceland who gave himself the nickname “Ari the Learned.” Eystein Halfdansson was a Norse chieftain that Ari called “Eystein the Fart” without any further comment. Since the 8th century (after Eystein was reportedly killed by a warlock), people have wondered why he was called this. Some think he was a loudmouth. Some think he was dirty. Some think “fart” actually means “journey,” the way the German word “fahrt” means “trip” in English, and that he was just a good traveler. Who knows? This nickname reeks of mystery.
8. The Queen of the Bees
Anne Louise Benedicte de Bourbon-Conde was actually just a duchess, but she didn’t let that stop her. She also didn’t let a psychotic father, a meek mother, and the contempt of most of her relatives in the royal court of France stop her. She mostly did what she pleased and always said what she pleased—getting a reputation for having a terrible temper. Soon she also got a reputation for political acumen. She married off her siblings and her children strategically. In 1719, she plotted with the Spanish ambassador to overthrow the regent of France, a political rival who was ruling for a child king, and got herself and her husband thrown in prison for a year.
Her title, “Queen of the Bees,” comes from the fact that, just for fun, she founded her own chivalric order called the Order of the Honey Bee. In an apparent attempt to make it as ridiculous as possible, she had its “knights” wear robes embroidered with bees and wigs made to look like bee hives. The ridiculousness didn’t take. Instead, it became the basis of a sort of unofficial court that drew the likes of Voltaire.
7. The Great Asparagus
This nickname was earned by a very young Charles de Gaulle. One would think it was a smack at his nationality by foreign soldiers, but actually it was given to him by his fellow military academy cadets, who found his great height and big nose comical. To be honest, that’s a pretty uninspiring insult, since being slender and tall isn’t much of a burn.
De Gaulle went on to earn many nicknames, a surprising amount of them extremely mean. Predictably his big nose got him Cyrano, but he earned a lot of political nicknames, too. When he argued for Algeria’s independence from France he got called “La Grande Zohra,” because people believed that “zohra” was the word for camel. He was caricatured as a camel, and the name stuck so much that it’s used in pop culture. He was called Colonel Motors in the 1930s, when he pushed for more tanks.
And there is some claim that people who thought his legacy was too militant called him “Viper,” after the pushy commander in Top Gun, after the movie came out in the 1980s. Despite all that, how can you top The Great Asparagus? His nicknamers peaked early.
6. The Little Impaler
Yes, this is the name given to Vlad Tepes’s son. I don’t know why adding “little” makes a horrible nickname adorable, but it does. Possibly because it translates as Tepelus.
5. He Who Sees in the Dark
At last you’ve got a nickname for your stalker or whatever is lurking under your bed! Frederick Burnham’s life sounds like an adventure novel, and quite possibly is at least partly made up. Born in 1861 on the Lakota Sioux Reservation in Minnesota, he first learned trail signs and survival skills from the tribes there before moving south west to learn from the last of the frontier cowboys. He used his skills in tracking and survival to fight in colonial wars (for the colonists) on two different continents—America and Africa.
Politically he’s no longer a popularly cited history maker, but there’s no denying that he was tough as nails. In his late fifties or early sixties, he was selected for a unit similar to the Rough Riders, which was going to go into France during World War I. In his seventies, he was still working on the ground for the National Parks Service. Despite his very, very long involvement with the military he’s best known today for starting the scouting movement in the United States, and for mentoring Robert Baden-Powell, who started the scouts in the UK.
4. The Unavoidable
The next two nicknames are a lesson in how nicknames can deceive. The Unavoidable sounds kind of cool, like The Nothing from The Neverending Story. This person is inevitable. They’re certain. There is no way to resist them.
Or they’re just the only person available for the job. The late 1700s and early 1800s really did a number of the French Monarchy, and Louis XVIII reigned (sort of) through most of that time. He spent most of his time in exile. First the French Revolution drove him to free load at various royal courts in England, Prussia, and Russia, then Napoleon kept him out. When Napoleon was sent to Elba, the French looked around for someone, anyone, who could bring them stability, and they found good old patient Louis. He was placed on the throne. Then Napoleon escaped and Louis fled. When Napoleon was re-captured, back came Louis. So instead of an awe-inspiring force, The Unavoidable was the product of a negative answer to two questions: “Is anyone in front of the palace with an axe?” and “Is Napoleon around?”
3. The Boneless
“Ivar is a pretty badass leader Viking leader, you know? He’s such a great fighter. He’s ferocious.”
“Yeah, he fights like he’s possessed or something. He just rips through other people’s armies. He’s so fast!”
“It’s incredible. Even though he’s huge, he just moves so fast and fluidly. He goes through the other troops like they’re not there. He’s so agile. It’s amazing. It’s like he’s boneless.”
“Let’s call him Ivar the Boneless.”
“Great idea. That nickname will give people a really clear idea of what a great fighter he is.”
“I’m glad we had this talk.”
2. The Black Swallow of Death
How do you earn that nickname? You earn it by being Eugene Bullard, that’s how. Born in Georgia in 1895, he stowed away early on a ship to France. There he made his living as a boxer and a drummer in nightclubs. When World War I broke out, he threw his lot in with France and started fighting early and on the ground. The fact that he survived long enough to be wounded at the Battle of Verdun is impressive all on its own, but he earned his nickname because of what came next.
Recovering in the hospital, he learned of a newly-forming air division and quickly volunteered to be a gunner. This was at a time when planes were first being thought of as a tool for the military and many of them were little more than flying crates. That didn’t deter Bullard. He eventually became both a gunner and a pilot, and went zooming around the sky in a plane reportedly emblazoned with the phrase, “All Blood Runs Red.” Inspirational.
Incidentally, Bullard didn’t let the fact that the war was over stop him from fighting. He kept working in Paris, first as a drummer and then as a nightclub owner and then, 1939, as a spy. The Germans who went to his nightclub didn’t suspect he spoke German. After World War II he went back to America, where he joined the civil rights movement, because why not just keep fighting?
1. The Universal Spider
Opinions on Louix XI vary widely. Some think he was an ambitious and capable monarch who managed to cobble together both the territory we think of as France and a French national identity. Some think he was a patricidal sociopath who caused misery wherever he did go and most of the places he didn’t go. There are rumors that he poisoned his father, Charles VII. Whether he did or not, when his father died in 1461, Louis XI forbade anyone to mourn. Before his father died, Louis had rounded up rebellious lords and tried to unseat him at least once. His father forgave him, but soon found Louis scheming against him once more and banished him from court.
During his reign Louis seems to have kept his throne by smacking down the nobility. He imprisoned several of his father’s ministers, and maintained a network of spies which kept tabs on every noble house. He also had a habit of showing up at different towns and and government associations and auditing their books. This, no surprise, made him the darling of the lesser nobility and the commoners, who refused to rebel against him.
What really earned him his nickname was his long-term war with the rulers of Burgundy. A powerful state in its own right, it stood in the path of Louis’ dream of a single united France. As such, he kicked up rebellions against its leaders, then turned around and signed treaties with them—which he soon broke. He spun endless treaties with England, Spain, and other provinces in France which might have allied with Burgundy. And, in the end, he outright made war. By the time he died, he got what he wanted—a unified France and the most badass nickname in the world.