The Wire almost overflows with characters who bear interesting street names. Some, like “Dee” are about brevity and informality. Others, like “Snotboogie” are unfortunate tags that follow the bearer for life. Then, there are the names like “Stinkum” and “Wee-Bey” that convey a certain humor and even poetry.
All names are powerful representations of a person’s social identity, but nicknames have a special power. A birth name is assigned by parents, and might represent something about culture or heritage. They are a link to the past, or at least a link to the moment of birth. Nicknames, on the other hand, come later in life. They are either “self-applied” (as they say in The Big Lebowski) or they are given by others. In The Wire (particularly in the world of the street), nicknames have a special power precisely because they offer the ability to identify one’s self instead of just accepting the circumstances of a one’s birth.
There is another important benefit to nicknames: they offer protection. Not only is a nickname an escape from the fate determined by parents. It is also an escape from the reaches of the official infrastructure, with all of its licences, documents, ID cards, and records. It is a way to carve out an identity below the radar of the official world. This becomes apparent when Kima and McNulty attempt to track down the vicious Barksdale assassin and torturer who goes by the name of Bird.
As Kima and McNulty search for Bird, they complain that their ignorance of his real name prevents them from tracking him down. Omar (who wilfully refuses to use a nickname– “you do the shit on your name,” he says of his stickup method) gives the simple response: “Bird just Bird.” The name becomes the man, predatory, elusive, feeding on small and helpless insects of the projects. At the same time, the name hides the man, shielding him from the view of anybody who exists outside of his world.
But just as the nickname distances Bird from the official world, it also distances himself from the aspects of that world that are essential to life. In shedding his birth name, he also sheds family, law, legitimate work and the other structures of a functional mainstream life. All this leaves him with is the identity of a ruthless, unapologetic killer. It is so easy to forget that once, long ago, Bird was (to paraphrase McNulty) just a baby “whose mama went to the trouble of christening him” Marquis Hilton.