We thought we had it all figured out, my husband and I: In naming our daughter, we honoured both her paternal and maternal grandmothers — thus Katherine Irene. But we also wanted to give her a moniker all her own, something short, elegant, mock-proof. Then it came to us: an acronym. The K from Katherine, the I from Irene — Ki. Perfect, right? So how come this perfectly named kid of ours has been called everything from Ick to Pumpkin Head?
Fact is, the name on a child’s birth certificate says more about the parents and genealogy than it does about the child, says Will van den Hoonaard, a sociology professor at the University of New Brunswick. “We might decide to name our baby after Uncle So-and-So, but as soon as this little eight-pounder is born, he acquires traits or behaviours that motivate people to call him by a more colloquial name.” This urge to rename is something people have experienced throughout history — for better or worse. Remember Bloody Mary? Chances are her mummy didn’t visualize her darling baby girl going down in history with that epithet. On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t complain if you were the parent of a guy nicknamed Air Jordan or The Great One. But not all nicknames commemorate the ability to sink a ball, slap a puck or orchestrate a reign of terror.
Until the 1940s or so, the names given to English-speaking North Americans didn’t vary much. For baby boys, John, William, Robert and James were perennial favourites; for girls, Mary, Margaret, Elizabeth and Anna. “It wasn’t unusual for those names to be passed from generation to generation,” says Cleveland Kent Evans, an associate professor of psychology at Bellevue University in Nebraska and author of The Great Big Book of Baby Names. So, many families had, for example, several Roberts. Hence, the hypocoristic (a fancy word for the shortened form of a given name) like Bess for Elizabeth, or Billy for William. Other families adapted given names to include descriptions, such as Young Mary or James the Elder.
While some nicknames pay tribute to a child’s given name, others recognize a particular physical or character trait, like Firecracker for a child with red hair or Eveready for a kid with boundless energy. Edmonton mom Sharon Hebert has a three-year-old son, William, who got the nickname Squint from the way he squashed his face up in the morning when the bedroom light went on. “My husband came up with it,” says Hebert. “It’s cute and different. There’s no chance you’re going to call it out in a crowded room and have all the kids turn to see if you’re calling them.” Same goes for Erin Dooks. Her 10-year-old son, Nicholas, picked up the nickname Toady when, as a child, he was trying to learn to walk and would draw his legs underneath himself like a toad. “It just kind of stuck,” says the Clarksburg, Ont., mom. Toady is not Nicholas’s sole sobriquet. His aunt calls him Snicklefritz, a funny wordplay on his given name. He’s also called Dooker by his baseball team.
It’s not abnormal for one person to have several nicknames, says van den Hoonaard. The pet name you use for your child in moments of tenderness is, for example, likely much different than the one used by the soccer coach to encourage your kid during games. (Face it: “Go, honeybun, go!” just doesn’t cut it.)
“Sometimes nicknames reflect a little slice of family history,” says van den Hoonaard. That’s the case for Stony Creek, Ont., mom Jan Shannik. When her son, Justin, was learning to talk, he had trouble pronouncing his sister’s name. “He started calling Meghan Eggie,” says Shannik. That was a decade ago. “We loved the name then, and we’re still using it.”
Every so often, a nickname seems to materialize out of thin air. Lisa Dart, a Pickering, Ont., mom of three boys, says her eldest son, Christopher, has been called Crunchy since he was a baby. “My husband started it, but I’m not really sure why.” When middle son Michael (now seven) came along, he was dubbed Munchy. “So now we have a Crunch and a Munch,” says Dart. “Kind of like a snack food.”
Insults and in-jokes
Just as nicknames can be used affectionately, so too can they be used to wound. There are plays on given names, like Phony Tony instead of Anthony, or Olive Pit in place of Olivia. There are warped versions of surnames, like Pee Boy instead of Pearson. And who could forget Fatty, Four Eyes, Pizza Face, Metal Mouth and all the other verbal slings and arrows whizzing around out there?
Sometimes it’s obvious that kids are using these names as a way of cutting other kids down to size or showing them they’re not liked, says Evans. But the intent isn’t always so clear. “A nickname may sound pejorative but, if you know its history, turns out to be a sign of affection from the people using it.” Could be, for example, that your son’s friends don’t call him Bug Breath to insinuate he has halitosis, but rather to recount a hilarious episode when he accidentally swallowed a bug. Used in this way, says van den Hoonaard, nicknames act as a kind of social glue, binding group members closer together.
In-jokes aside, once an appellation like Snot Girl or Dorkasaurus catches on, it can be hard to shake. When that happens, van den Hoonaard thinks we need to remind kids that the situation isn’t permanent. “There will be other times, circumstances and places when they’ll likely be given a nickname that acknowledges their admirable qualities.” Consider actress Lucy Lawless: As a kid, some folks called her Unco because they thought she was an uncoordinated klutz. In adulthood, she picked up another nickname when she starred as the definitely not uncoordinated Xena, Warrior Princess. Now that’s what you call poetic justice!
The word nickname was originally an eke name, meaning “an also name.” Over time, the n of the an went wandering and the word became a neke name, which was eventually corrupted into the modern nickname.
Chinese families often give newborns nicknames as protection from evil spirits. These names are frequently humble in nature — like Doggy, Piggy, Grass or even Dirt — so no self-respecting evil spirit would be interested in possessing the child who owns them.
The Coast Salish people have a long tradition of giving babies nicknames they use throughout childhood. When children come of age, they are given a hereditary name that connects them to their family history and follows them into adulthood. But the childhood nickname is not totally lost: It may still be used affectionately by close family or friends.
For a cool look at the most popular names from 1880 onward, compiled by the US Social Security Administration, check out ssa.gov.
What should you do if your child comes home from school complaining about a malicious moniker? Start by talking (but not interrogating!). “Find out where and when the incident occurred, what role your child might have played in it and then problem-solve together,” suggests David Millen, executive director of Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa and the Ottawa Anti-bullying Coalition.
Depending on your child’s age, temperament and the situation, you might recommend he ignore the nickname, tell the namer how it makes him feel, or use humour. But if name-calling is recurrent and is clearly an attempt by one person or a group of people to victimize your child, it’s time to make an appointment to talk with your child’s teacher or principal. “Name-calling, slurs and insults result in scars on the inside of a child,” says Millen. “If you’re told you are something bad over and over again, after a while you start believing it.”
Don’t forget to set a good example for your own kids, says Millen. That means curbing the impulse to label politicians, annoying neighbours or that woman who cut you off in traffic. “If kids hear you doing that, and see it earn you a laugh, they’re going to think it’s OK for them to use the same kind of derogatory language at school or home.”