What’s In A Name?

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Have you ever had a nickname? Do more people know you by a pet name than the one your parents gave you when you were born? 

I’m always fascinated by the way we rebrand people with nicknames and often wonder how they came about. I never had one that stuck. My cousins and a couple of my aunts tried calling me “Shay Shay” for a time, but it just never clicked enough to become a lifetime moniker. Because my mother felt that she had given me a lovey name she never wanted to distort its beauty with a silly shortened version. She began calling me “Little D or Little Doll” instead which made me wince whenever I heard it pass through her lips. I suppose everyone else felt the same way because her effort to provide me with what she saw as a suitable nickname never took hold. 

I have an aunt who was named Wilma (with the w being pronounced like a v), but she instead called herself Claudia. Her siblings chose to refer to her as Speedy until the day she died. For years I actually wondered why her mother and father had given her such a strange name because I never recall anyone speaking of her as Claudia. On the other hand one of her brothers sometimes referred to her as Wilma. For everyone else she was always Speedy.

I have a daughter named after her two grandmothers but somehow we began calling her Minnie instead shortly after she was born. It was an surprise that our affectionate way of referring to her took hold. Amazingly my grandmother was named Minnie and my husband’s grandmother had the elegant name, Mary Isabella, that eventually became Minnie to those who knew her best. Somehow I always suspected that the two ladies had somehow gotten into our brains to assign their great granddaughter a name that honors them both. Whatever the case, she is fondly called Minnie or Minnie LaLa by virtually everyone in the family.

Our second daughter became “Pookie” or “the Pook” to us, but her friends and her husband shortened her birth name of Catherine to “Cat” and that has stuck with her. Nonetheless to me and her father she will always be our Pookie. She really is as elegant and regal and as great as a Catherine as there ever was, but so humble that Cat seems to suit her best.

One of my cousins was named Paul but we always called him “Bubba.” As he grew older he seemed to resemble Bill Clinton and so his coworkers called him “Bubba” as well. A niece is actually Charlotte but we have referred to her “Birdie” for so long that she never became accustomed to her real name. One of my students is named Phillip but fondly known by those who are close to him as “Bill.” Another student has been renamed “Peach,” an excellent choice given her red hair and flawless complexion. Then there is “Ollie,”  a fun loving girl for whom the name Olivia seems a bit to formal. 

When I first met my husband everyone was calling him Mickey but he introduced himself to me as Mike. I became confused as we continued dating and I seemed to be the only one who did not refer to him as Mickey. One day I asked him if he preferred that I use the nickname that everyone else seemed to know. He insisted that he had never liked the moniker that had been foisted on him and asked me to continue calling him Mike. To this day when we are with his family he suddenly becomes Mickey and I sound as though I never correctly identified who he is. There is almost always some scratching of heads when I say his name in front of his relatives.

Most nicknames are cute and and often a kind of private reference from family or friends who know the person well. They only stick when they manage to weather the test of time. A friend named Alvin is still “Rusty” to all of us even though his once red hair is gone. The worst nickname I ever heard was “Booger.” I felt for the man who always looked pained whenever his kin called him that in public. What had seemed adorable when he was young felt somehow distasteful and insulting once he was an adult. 

Some people seem to inspire nicknames just from being themselves. Their birth names may be quite nice but not descriptive enough to explain their larger than life personalities. Either relatives or friends see something in them that demands the honor of a great nickname and the new moniker is born. Of late I am often called “Miss B” or “Mama B” by my students both present and past. I kind of like that. It seems to fit me well even though it’s not all that inventive. I’ve even found myself telling new students to just to call me Miss B instead of the more formal Mrs. Burnett. I suspect that some of them have referred to me with the shortened version for so long that they may not even remember my full name. It’s nice to finally have a nickname that makes me smile.

I often wonder if we grow to fit our names or if they somehow define as in a strange kind of way. I suppose there may be a psychological treatise somewhere that explores that every topic. Does the name fit the person or does the person fit the name? Perhaps it is a bit of both.