What’s Really in a Name?

A curious member of Washington’s Lookout Pack. East slope of the North Cascades.

Graphic Illustration by DOUG DOBEY

by Alane Cameron Ford

I love nicknames. I love coming up with them, using them, having them used on me… well, the friendly ones I do. I was an only child for 13 years and looked forward to great big family gatherings where cousins still knew you from the name you were called as a toddler. Nicknames meant family, affection, being cherished, and also a healthy dose of teasing.

My mother embarrassed me to my core when I was in college by leaving a loving message for me on the shared house answering machine. I came home from work that night to my roommate smugly grinning, “How was your day at work, Booger Brain?”

Everyone in my family has a nickname, or several, and they are said with love. Coming from that perspective I’ve never had much patience for people who have the emotional energy to get offended when a waitress or other stranger calls them “honey” in a blandly affectionate way. A nickname sends a signal of acceptance, safety and friendliness, and the opposite of a nickname is an epithet. Do you really want to go there?

There is a lifecycle to nicknames. If they are catchy, or funny, and not despised by the person to whom they refer, the name gathers the attention of the group who share it. If it is a truly fitting moniker or flows well off the tongue when a birth name does not, the nickname sticks and the community accepts it as the primary name. Only when outsiders come along does anyone remark upon the oddity of the nickname. Then at death, nicknames become bittersweet. The tender diminutives or humorous pet names ring out in a different key when the loved one who answered to them answers no more. This is particularly noticeable in the names that reference relationships. When Nanny dies, she is mourned both as herself and as the grandmother. The name will sometimes be buried with the person and later generations of grandmothers choose other nicknames, because there was only one Nanny.

I am a connoisseur of the paid death notice which is known in common parlance as an obituary, even though it isn’t one. The obituary is written by reporters. The paid death notice is written by the family or by the deceased. I love them both but prefer the paid death notice because families go with what they know. Often what families know best is a nickname. Although the relationship-based names are sweet, I prefer the nickname that makes you scratch your head and wonder about the mysteries of a person’s life.

A well-placed nickname tells a story, a story with little or no explanation needed if the nickname is apt enough. I have an Uncle Lefty and an Aunt Red. Red has had white hair for at least 15 years but still has all the temperament that goes with being a redhead. By continuing to call her Red, the strangers around her are duly warned. One of my children is sometimes known as Judge because by the time he could speak full paragraphs he was litigious. Another is known as Pearl for her rare graceful beauty, her pleasingly round head, and her preference to hang out in a comfy shell alone.

There are also the hilarious nicknames that point out one attribute by naming the opposite. At nearly six feet tall I have frequently been called Shorty, although now The Judge, who is sneaking up to 6′ 3″,  has earned the right to call me Lil’ Mama. My youngest cousin is still affectionately known as Baby Cousin Turner, in spite of the fact that he is over 40, 6’4″, and a sheriff’s deputy. Obviously, ours is a family that enjoys contrariness.

Working with people in hospice I sometimes get to know them well enough for a window to open into the intricacies of nicknames. One of my favorite patients was a quiet, polite man who unfortunately was bedbound by the time I met him. I had visited with him on multiple occasions before a family member addressed him by his nickname in my presence. My quiet, unassuming patient had been known for most of his life as Wolf. He’d earned the title, his son later told me. By his name I was reminded that at the end of life, we are not who we may seem. It was with great pleasure that I saw on his funeral bulletin the service was to honor Wolf and not Herbert, or Aloysius, or whatever name his parents gave him before his true identity was known.

There are those who disagree with me on the subject of nicknames in public space or in obituaries. These people feel that nicknames are undignified, inappropriate or, to use one of my darling grandmother’s favorite words, trifling. My guess is that these people might have also been on the receiving end of some less than loving nicknames, which is unfortunate. But I hold  that the nickname is just another little way in which we say, “I love you. I know you. We are connected, but hey, don’t take yourself or me too seriously.” No one should keep us from doing that in life or death.

About CharlesM 241 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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