little saint nick

Al, Brian, Dennis, Mike, Carl … but no Nick

Nikolaus came to my daughter’s preschool the other day and handed out gifts. It was a major event. It was also the first time I had heard this name, or one like it, uttered among the Estonians. You see, there are no Nicks in Estonia. I know Markus, and Martin, and Märtin and Marko. Kaarel and Mihkel and Luukas and Vello. But as far as I can recall … there is not one Nick in Eesti at all.

I could never understand this. There are Nicks in every other country. Nicola in Italy. Niko in Finland. Nikolao in Esperanto. Sure, I have known some derivatives here in Estonia. There is Klaus, the workman who works on our house in Viljandi. Then there was Nils, the nihilistic musician with the ponytail who wore black all the time and lived next door to us in Tartu. Yet there seems to be an aversion to Nicks. When a friend gave birth to a boy, I suggested the name Nikolai, which I thought could have a certain tsarist flair (because anything old is fresh and new in Eesti-land). The tot was christened Sander instead.

I took up the subject with Sven the baker here in Viljandi (because there are plenty of Svens in Estonia) and he sort of laughed at me and told me it was the simplest thing in the world. “That’s because Nick,” he said, “is the Estonian equivalent of ‘dick.'” And not only. The verb nikkuma has the same meaning as the English verbs “to fuck” and “to screw.” For Estonians, the phonetic “Nick” is a thing or a thing that one does with one’s thing, but not the actual person who has the thing or who does the doing with said thing.

The dialogue with Sven occurred at the local Christmas fair, where I butchered several unrehearsed Christmas songs on stage. I was going to learn “Little Saint Nick,” a rocking Beach Boys tune, but gave up when I realized that my crooner’s voice could not do justice to Brian Wilson’s California surfer cool. “Good thing I didn’t sing that song,” I told Sven. “They would have thrown gingerbread at me.”

Roll Call

I realize that it’s been a while since I last updated my “Gateways to the Northern Dimension” list and that many sterling web logs may have escaped my notice. If you know of anything worthy of inclusion that concerns the northern lands of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and assorted duchies, provinces, and former imperial masters, please share.


16 thoughts on “little saint nick”

  1. Yes, Nikolai is just too Russian to an Estonian ear. Its as foreign as Ahmed in this corner of the world. You would really have to have a reason to call your son one, of those two.

    Not that there's something wrong with those two names, I must add.


  2. Hang on. But we do have Niguliste Kirik. And in the film called Keskea Rõõmud, the main characters are on the road to meet the mystical Nigul. And if I remember correctly I've heard name being used by older people, at least in the South. Also Nikki is a fairly popular girl name, at least among the under 30's. I personally happen to know a couple.


  3. A quote especially for Marko: “Nikolai actually isn't that Russian at all. There were Nikolai von Glehn, Nikolai von Dellingshausen, etc. German-speaking world is full of Nikolaikirche's (Niguliste kirik among them).

    Nigol and Nigul are indeed Estonian versions of Nicholas/Nikolai, albeit rare. There is a Nigulapäev in the traditional calendar. I actually know a young guy called Nigol. Nigol can also be a surname. And there was Nigol Andresen, whom you probably have heard of.”


  4. Yep, Rainer. But did come across Nikolaj church in Copenhagen last summer. It exists in the Germanic world. And sorry for accidentally deleting your comment. This was more of an unexpected cultural difference post than about names in particular 😉


  5. Nikolai is an Estonian name. You will find it used more by people of the Orthodox faith, especially in Kihnu. But as with most Orthodox names, which are older biblical names, the Estonians use a “nickname” Nikolai becomes Kolla.


  6. I was thinking that you could add the opinion section of the English version of ERR. But I would only recommend it with reservations. I mean what's up with ERR? Do they have no money to hire proper editors or is it that people of my generation are being spoilt with easy access to the BBC, Telegraph and Independent?

    ERR just comes across so rigid, inconsistent and ugly in their usage of the English language, that I actually stopped reading it as one of my dailies.


  7. uh, this is a bit crude, but I always thought the aversion to the name Nick and derivatives with a strong k is because of the slang word “nikkuma” – that's something most parents would NOT want their child associated with!

    it's the same reason why the word “annal” in the English (and most other) language(s) has gone out of use and instead they say “record”. While the word “annal” comes from the latin “anno” and simply records things that have happened in that year/those years. But nowadays it's easier to just not use that word, same as the original meaning of the word “gay”=”jolly, gleeful”.


  8. Seriously, though, Marko, what are you talking about? I've been looking over copy and screenshots of ERR News in the months that it lacked an editor-in-chief. I don't see any major miscues or problems. Obviously I have a stake here, but when I look at the landscape of English-language news on Estonia, I see a wasteland of free sites like Baltic Course, BBN and Bonjour l'Estonie, which are mainly aggregators edited by one non-native person, little better than RSS (there's a valid case to be made that they're unethical if they poach material without linking) and then there's ERR News, which even if they didn't pay me I would say is well-rounded and fairly responsive for a publicly funded organization, and doesn't have any broken English. It's just too bad they don't work weekends. I just hope I'm not wasting my time talking to a shill for a fee-charging Baltic wire service here…


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