Monday, July 08, 2013

Problematic nicknames?

I grew up with a host of guys named David, Michael and Matthew. Most of these guys were Dave, Mike and Matt. Some, however, insisted upon being called by what was on their birth certificate: David, Michael, or Matthew. They always lamented how every time they met a new person, or had their names called at the DMV or in school at the beginning of the year, they were always Dave, Mike, or Matt.

It's a tiny bit different for girls, for whom an Elizabeth could be Beth or Liz (or Betty, Liza, Betsy or a host of other names),a Jennifer could be Jenny or Jen and a Melissa might be Lissa, Lissy, or Missy (but was usually just Melissa). However, there are those who claim their names would also automatically be shortened (A Catherine friend of mine was often called Cathy, though she hated it).

Interesting factoid: a "nickname" was originally a name not connected to your actual name that other people called you. It had to do with your appearance, personality, circumstances, where you lived or whatever. For example, a guy with red hair called Red-- Red is a nickname. Shorty, Scooter, Honey Boo Boo, Speedy, Slim and Stinky McGee are all nicknames (Maybe it's just a New England thing to refer to someone by his or her most distinguishing characteristic and then adding McGee).

A short form of a name (i.e., Jenny for Jennifer, Matt for Matthew) is technically a "pet form" or "diminutive."

Anyway... Is there a way to nip undesirable diminutive forms of names in the bud? Should you care?

We Didn't Name Him Wowee

New York Times Monday, July 8, 2013
by Patrick Wensink


I grew up in a small town (Deshler, Ohio, population 1,799) and that small town is stockpiled with great nicknames.
I have an uncle Shaky. There are guys named Nine Fingers Cunningham and Hunker Haas. My grandfather’s best friend for more than 70 years was Skeet Franz. I even had a Shorty grandma and a Spooky grandma (named for their respective cats).
Nicknames defined these personalities from my childhood. A good, eccentric handle always seemed like harmless fun (when not vindictive) and now function as a mental Rolodex, immediately bringing these characters into sharper definition than those unfortunate nicknameless souls from my past.
I love nicknames.
But lately the tables have turned. You see, people have started giving my child nicknames.
Somehow, I lived 33 years without earning an alias. So, despite my interest in the art form, nicknames weren’t much of a concern when naming our son. “What will you call him for short?” people asked.
“Nothing,” my wife and I said. “He’ll just be Walter.”
As you can imagine, he is not just Walter. Ten seconds after meeting, people rearrange his name with a kindhearted smile. I shouldn’t be mad because these nicknames are a sign of affection. People call him Walt or Wally because they like him.
But for some reason those names cause me to sharpen my tone and squint my eyes. “We named him Walter,” I say, an inch away from waving his birth certificate through the air.
Like some renegade virus, his name has now mutated and become immune to vaccinations. For a young cousin who is still wrestling with phonetics, Walter is known as Wowee on my wife’s side of the family. This new nickname has grown to full-on outbreak status. Frankly, it’s cute and memorable and fits his goofy nature. I should be monogramming Wowee on his shirts, but I can’t get into the spirit.
I am starting to suspect nicknames hold more power than I previously imagined. Much like Marty McFly kissing his mother, it’s becoming clear that a tiny name tweak can send ripples into a person’s future. Or at least the way we perceive nicknames.
For example, the last time I visited Deshler, I ran into a guy known as Doofus for most of the ’80s and ’90s. Even his stepfather called him Doofus. It took me a few breaths to remember that his real name is Justin and he is a grown man with a family. It was hard convincing myself that he is probably not a doofus anymore. That he no longer has a bat symbol shaved into his head helped.
As I tend to do with most things child-related, I began to overreact. This nickname is not just some annoyance, but it could be tied to Walter’s future failures. Who is going to hire a 40-something guy named Wowee?
Thankfully, just as my meltdown began, I discovered a recent Freakonomics podcast, “How Much Does Your Name Matter?” The show was a fascinating dissection of how names influence a child’s economic and social outcome. A good portion of the broadcast was centered around a sociologist, Dalton Conley, who legally named his children E and Yo as a sort of experiment.
Listening to this fascinating story eased my nickname anxiety. My moment of Zen arrived as the host, Stephen Dubner, proclaimed: “From what we can tell, your name is not your destiny, even if your name is Destiny. Or Esme. Or Archimedes, or Kurt.” A nickname may not an obituary for Walter’s future. The man he develops into is far too complex for a single name to control.
But just as the sun began shining on my anxiety, I was reminded of one other nugget from the podcast: “It’s not the name your parents give you, it’s the kind of parents you have in the first place.”
So the nicknames Wowee, Wally or Walt probably won’t determine who my child becomes. But an anxious, overreacting father on the other hand …

1 comment:

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