She came across a “ratfaced man” in a KGB uniform who went on passionately about his plan for a Greater Russia that would embrace ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, wherever they were. Yes, Vladimir Putin, as described in a newspaper column I read some time ago (but haven’t been able to find), telling about a meeting that was obviously from some years ago. What especially caught my eye was the “ratfaced”, which caused me to think of the Russian dictator as Vladimir “Ratface” Putin, a gangster like Al “Scarface” Capone”, Jack “Legs” Diamond, and all the rest.

The political proposal. This survives, at least in Ukraine, as in this news story today:

Ukrainians Who Identify As Ethnic Russians Or Say Russian Is Their First Language: Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will “protect” Russian speakers wherever they are.

This is hard to take seriously as an actual general proposal (as opposed to a claim on chunks of Ukraine). A very large piece of the Russian diaspora is in the United States, and many Jews have Russian as their first language, and I doubt that Putin would welcome either group in Greater Russia. (We all know that Russian Jews don’t count: Jews aren’t really Russians, because they’re Jews; Jews are forever foreigners.)

Then there’s a somewhat narrower sense of Greater Russia, as in this Wikipedia article:

Greater Russia is a political aspiration of Russian nationalists and irredentists to retake some or all of the territories of the other republics of the former Soviet Union and territory of the former Russian Empire and amalgamate them into a single Russian state.

Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Khazakstan, at least, but maybe Georgia, Moldova, and the Baltic states as well.

Interpreting Putin. When I first started thinking about these various proposals, I tried assessing how much of what Ratface says involves genuine beliefs — about Greater Russia, fighting threats from the West, protecting the Russian Orthodox Church, purging Russia of homosexuality, and so on — and how much has to do with strengthening his political power and how much with enriching his kleptocracy. Eventually I decided that there was no point in the exercise, and that Ratface himself is probably unable to pull the threads apart.

Nicknames. On to my main point, gangster nicknames. Well, in the nickname world there are simple nicknames, versions of personal names (“first names”, or FNs) — Margaret “Maggie” Thatcher, Edward “Ted” Kennedy — and what I’ll call ornamental nicknames, from many sources, having to do with appearance, activities, personal history, family name (“last name”, or LN), and so on; the history of an ornamental nickname can be entirely non-obvious and unpredictable (John Robert “Haj” Ross, George Herbert Walker “Poppy” Bush). Simple nicknames are introduced via the quotation strategy only in special circumstances (like Wikipedia entries) but otherwise function, without note, as alternative FNs. Ornamental nicknames usually require introduction via the quotation strategy, which treats them like middle names.

Ornamental nicknames can function, as simple nicknames do, as alternative FNs: along with LN (Haj Ross, Poppy Bush, Fatty Arbuckle, Legs Diamond, Ratface Putin, etc.) or as stand-alones (Haj, Poppy, Fatty, Legs, Ratface, etc.).

(Just watched: Law & Order episode 320, “Nowhere Man”, featuring mobmen Anthony Biscotti, known as Biscuits from his LN, and Frederico Libretti, known as Books from a bilingual play on his LN. Throughout the show, they are simply referred to as “Biscuits and Books”.)

Gangster nicknames are ornamental nicknames, but sometimes have a syntactic option not otherwise available to ornamental nicknames: FN + Nickname, with Nickname treated like LN: Frankie “Knuckles” Gambino referred to as Frankie Knuckles. Or Vladimir Ratface.

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