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What’s in a (nick)name?

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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My father-in-law was at my house a few days ago, telling stories like he likes to do. He reminisced about a guy most people know as “Smiley.” 

This “Smiley” character was the latest in a War and Peace-sized list of nicknames I’d heard him and others bring up over the years, so many so that I wondered if anyone here went by their birth name. Monikers on the list include: Codeye, Birdhead, Tiny, Slapface (also referred to as “Ol” Slapface), Lager, Squirrel, Lambhead, Doodle, Sod, Brush, Red, Buzz, Hutch, and on and on. My father-in-law has two himself.

I didn’t recall the nickname phenomenon where I grew up, or within my own family for that matter. Was this a regional thing? A rural thing? And why don’t I have one?  

The issue is explored in an episode of Cartoon Network’s Uncle Grandpa. Uncle Grandpa, a magical grandpa  who travels the world helping people, lands his flying RV in a neighborhood and kids gather. He goes down the line excitedly high-fiving “Larry Picture,” “Blondie,” “Duck Head Tony,” “Spaghetti Legs,” and gets to the boy at the end. 

“And who are you?” Uncle Grandpa asks. 

“Eric.” 

“No, I meant your nickname.” 

Eric lowers his head despondently. 

“Oh that. I don’t have one.” 

The downtrodden Eric said he guessed he’s too boring to have a nickname. 

  Uncle Grandpa dished out some wisdom. He tells Eric he can’t just get a nickname. 

“You gotta' earn it,” he says. “You have to do something legendary.”

You also can’t give yourself one. 

I agree some nicknames are the result of legendary acts (i.e. “The Great Bambino,”), but the origins of a nickname are many and varied. They range from commentary on physical traits (“Curly” for someone with curly hair); to ironic nicknames for physical traits (“Shorty” for someone who is tall), to riffs on occupation (“Bones” for a doctor), and many others. 

[Note: Some don’t count. Occasionally I’m referred to as “Ang” or “Reinhardt,” but variations on your name don’t cut the mustard].  

  While a legendary act might not be required to get your own, Uncle Grandpa is still onto something, the certain sine qua non that nicknames have.  

In his book The Means of Naming, author Stephen Wilson says nicknames are common in small groups or communities where they can represent a hierarchy of power in which it “more than any other type of personal name reflects the social power the namer holds over the named,” or that they can “stigmatize anything uncommon – heritage, accent, appearance, attitudes.” But nicknames also exist in a friendly, affectionate sense, and are used respectfully and signal membership into a group.  

All of this makes sense. I’d argue most people get their nickname in high school or college, or in tight-knit groups like the military. They are also a decidedly a male phenomenon and seem to have a strong relationship to hazing. 

Still,  I’ve lamented not having my own. Maybe I’m boring like Eric. I wrote an article about biscuits last year and friends called me “Biscuit” a couple times, but it didn’t stick. Another friend called me “Tangelo” one night several years ago, but that one didn’t stick either. 

I was discussing this at the office and a guy who helps us deliver papers on Wednesday (and who goes by ‘Big-D’) said, “Oh, no. We all call you ‘Rhino.’”

For a split-second I got excited at the thought of having a nickname I didn’t know about. I was in the club! 

Then he told me, “No, not really.” 

Dang. 

Oh well. But for all you lucky folks out there, all you Maddogs and Papa Smurfs and Bruisers, enjoy being part of a chummy subculture me, and many others, may never know. 

Sincerely,

“Rhino” 

    (really trying to make this one stick)   

 

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