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Sorry, but I have a real problem with nicknames. Supposedly precious and endearing, these poor substitutes for real names are a cop-out of sorts, a demonstration of the inability or unwillingness of the nickname-giver to give an acquaintance, a friend, a son or daughter, the precious gift of the sound of their own names.

My heart shrivels when I hear a young father address his little boy as “bud” or “buddy” when he could be using his name. I feel insulted by salespersons who says “thanks, bud” or “have a good day, pal”, when my name is right in front of them on the credit card. Or if they don’t wish to use my name, then they should address me respectfully as “Sir” and leave “Bud” or “Pal” out of the conversation. Conversely, I feel warmly thrilled when a salesperson, waiter or even the invisible voice on the phone cares enough to address me as “Ralph”. Always, I will ask such individuals their names, so that I might return the favor. “Your name again? Susan? Thank you Susan, you have been really helpful. Susan, have a great day”.

I also disdain the sectional (typically western or southern) habit of posting a notable’s name with his nickname in quotes: Charles “Hos” Hoskins, Maricopa County, Arizona, Treasurer, for example, or Alabama state senator James T. “Jabo” Waggoner, or Texas Justice of the Peace Norris “Stretch” Rideaux. Forget it – if the name is Charles, or James, or Norris then call him Charles or James (Jim will do) or Norris for God’s sake. I should add that this aversion to nicknames does not extend to the common use of “Bill” for William, “Susie” for Susan, “Johnny” for John, “Joe” for Joseph, “Charlie” for Charles, “Jim” for James and so on. These are often “short” or “familiar” versions and are acceptable enough to pass for the real name. But I never question Joe’s preference for Joseph, Bill’s preference for William or Johnny’s preference for John. I know what they mean; that request impresses me and I am eager to oblige.

Nor does this nickname aversion extend to terms of endearment. “Sweetie”, “darling”, and “sweetheart” are all complimentary and are rarely substitutes for real names. They are more, as terms of endearment, of love and respect, and perhaps in some cases even more welcome and sweet to the ear of the listener than the real name.

Also, please spare me the habit of nicknaming a child with the beginning letters of the first name and second names. I have had it with the J.D.’s, the J.T.’s, the A.J.’s, the J.R.’s, the T.J.’s and the weary rest of them. Frankly, parents in love with this initial nicknaming business ought to be required to use it if the child’s given first and middle names are Brendan Stuart, Bernard Oliver, Pauline Ursula, Thomas Blake or Owen David.

I think my aversion to nicknames is firmly based in psychology and preferred social and interpersonal practice. As expressed so well by Dale Carnegie and often quoted, “There is no sweeter sound to any person’s ear than the sound of their own name”. I would add that when a name is used, it signifies to the listener that the speaker cares enough to know and use the name. Using a nickname signifies lack of diligence and caring. And “Sir” and “Madam” are not nicknames but terms of respect. There is a huge difference between being addressed as “Sir” or “Buddy” or “Stretch”.

Personally my aversion to nicknames goes deeper and farther than being respectful, getting along better and feeling good. It is an aversion that goes back to a father who rarely if ever called any of his children by their given names. He had nicknames for every one of his eight children. And this habit of nicknaming extended to everyone in his social circle – students, friends and colleagues. Growing up, I often heard compliments about my father’s penchant for nicknames. When he gave someone a nickname it stuck and he was renowned for this ability. While I largely received such compliments about my father favorably, I nevertheless felt a strong sense of disappointment that this talent of his was so much admired. I would rather have had people marvel at his capacity for love, kindness, generosity or humor than at his ability to apply nicknames so successfully. Furthermore, especially with my father there was always an element of teasing or derision in his nicknames for us and for others, making this habit even more distasteful.

My father’s inability to use given names I think was a sign of an inability to give, which he exhibited in a myriad of other ways as well both with members of his family and others. When a person uses a proper given name, they are giving part of themselves to the listener or recipient. Again, they are caring enough to use the name and, Dale Carnegie was right, it does sound sweet. I was never exactly proud of my name – Ralph – although it was also my father’s name. Too many people name their sheepdogs “Ralph”. But on the other hand, the name is employed sensitively and sweetly in Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story”. Further, I think it was ill advised to choose a name ending with the same consonant sound as the beginning of the last name. I always feel that I need to make very clear to others that my name is not “Ral Friedly”, or “Ralph Riedly” but “Ralph….Friedly”. But I still am thrilled when someone addresses me as “Ralph” or “Ralphie” because that’s my name, that’s the name my parents chose for me and that’s the name I should be called.

But I digress – back to nicknames. When I think of my father’s nicknames for all eight of his children, while perhaps meant to be endearing, they all seemed demeaning. They took away rather than added, diminished rather than enhanced. Recalling these nicknames, saying them again in my mind, is not pleasant and does not make me feel good in any way. Instead, I get a chill in my heart and a feeling of sadness and loss. My Dad’s practice of using nicknames for his children seemed to be not only distancing himself from his children but also a conscious or unconscious attempt to reinforce his vaunted reputation for cleverness and prowess in nicknaming.

So although the reader may disagree, may in fact enjoy his or her nickname and even call his or her little boy “bud” or “pal”, we at least should agree that names are important, that “there is something in a name” and that the sound of one’s name is sweet indeed.

 

 

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