24 Jan 2023

The Name Game

Nicknames have a long and distinguished history in Britain. For example, the Prince Regent was called ‘Prinny’ and the Duke of Wellington ‘Nosey’. They are still popular amongst the aristocracy, while public schools and the armed forces are still bastions of the nickname.

Nicknames are, first and foremost, a sign of group solidarity. They can be common currency amongst a group of friends (perhaps becoming more widely used if the person concerned is a celebrity) and using them is an effective way of asserting membership within a clique.

For many people nicknames are a sign of affection and intimacy. They may be humorous or teasing, but above all they indicate that you know someone well and like them. Some people acquire nicknames in childhood, which they carry happily into adult life.

Positive nicknames may well play with the person’s real name; men often have nicknames based on their last name, such as ‘Smithy’, a legacy of the public school tendency to refer to pupils by their surnames. Or they may affectionately highlight a person’s personality attribute (‘Sunny’ for the relentless optimist, ‘Eeyore’ for the comically gloomy).

Sometimes nicknames can be sarcastic, insulting or alarming and are wielded as instruments of aggression. The ruthless mobster Al Capone was ominously dubbed ‘scarface’. Nobody would argue that calling someone who is obese ‘porky’ is complimentary.

If you have been saddled with a nickname that you really don’t like, then you must tell other people that you would prefer to be addressed by your given name. If you do so politely, most people will respect your wishes. If they forget and lapse into old habits, it’s fine to gently remind them. After all, your name is intrinsic to your identity, and you should therefore have some degree of control over what you are called.

Given that nicknames – positive or negative – come from a position of familiarity you should tread carefully when you are introduced to someone by their nickname. If in doubt, ask the person if they are always called by their nickname, or whether they would prefer you to use their forename.

If you are the person with the nickname and your friends blithely use it when introducing you to strangers, it is helpful if you give a brief explanation of why you have the nickname. If you are happy for it to be used (after all, some people prefer their nicknames to their real name), then of course you can say so: “My real name is Victoria, but everyone calls me Queenie”. If you really don’t want your nickname to be bandied about to all and sundry, now is the time to interject with a swift plea: “Spike is my nickname, but I prefer to be called “Michael”.

Many of us don’t have a nickname that highlights a personality trait or physical characteristic, but we do shorten our forename. The list of shortened English names is compendious and ever-growing. Many people prefer a shortened, monosyllabic version of their name, which they feel comes across as direct and dynamic. Alternatively, they may opt for a name that is not strictly an abbreviation, but is derived from their forename (Beth, Nell, Ned, Dottie). Or they may opt for a unisex version of their name (Billie, Frankie, Charlie, Georgie). Try to notice how people refer to themselves and be cautious about how they are introduced by their friends – they may well loathe the way their name has been mangled and be desperate to return to their original given name. Once again, if there is any ambiguity, it is polite to ask the person what they prefer to be called.

If you have a name that is invariably shortened (Alexandra, Margaret, Harrison, Theodore) you will probably need to take control of the narrative. You may need to politely intervene when you first meet people: “Everybody calls me Theo, but I really prefer Theodore”. Or, if you prefer a shortened form, you should say so: “I know Alexandra is a bit of a mouthful, so please call me Alex.”

Be wary of nicknames in a professional context. Sometimes names are derived from a person’s age or physical characteristics and, even if they are meant affectionately, they can easily be interpreted as discriminatory. You might find it amusing to call an older colleague ‘Gramps’; he or she might find the nickname ageist and take offence. Remember that nicknames related to age, gender, sexuality and race may all fall foul of the Equality Act of 2010 and dismissing criticism of them with an airy “it’s just office banter” really isn’t good enough.

Finally, respect social and professional boundaries. Your friend or sibling might be perfectly happy for you to call them by a childhood nickname but will feel mortified if you start referring to them as ‘Bunny’ or ‘Squishy’ in a professional context. Sometimes nicknames really shouldn’t stray out of the confines of family, partnership or friendship circles. Many of us present different faces to the world and if we choose to do so, our wishes should be respected.


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