Aug 17, 2022–When and where I grew up, every kid acquired a nickname shortly after entering elementary school. None of us ever knew where it came from, or how it was selected, or who christened us. One day you were “Phil;” the next day you were “Bernardo.”
In 5th grade, Bernardo became my handle, for some reason. I asked the kid who gave it to me where he got it, and he said I reminded him of a character in the Sunday funnies.
We didn’t have google then, so I didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted. But I did learn at that early age that if you didn’t want to be teased with your nickname, you quickly accepted it. I went so far that when we were asked to select our confirmation names, I chose “Bernard.” You don’t know the torture like the torture of 11-year-old boys trying to keep from giggling while the Bishop intoned “I christen thee Saint Bernard” and slapping you on the cheek while kneeling in front of a packed church. Forgive me, Lord.
Every kid in our class had a nickname, and we responded to those more readily than to our given names. It was always fun when a substitute teacher tried to sort us out.
But in 7th grade our family moved to a small town down the road. My nickname didn’t transfer. I remember thinking it strange that none of the kids in this school used or had nicknames. I asked around and no one seemed to think it mattered. For a brief time I tried to assign them to my classmates, but it didn’t stick. I wasn’t very good at it anyway.
Some people just have the gift. After one game of pickup basketball, these creative individuals will have christened you with your court name, and it will follow you the rest of your life. Mine was Phildini, as in Houdini. It was bestowed by Sir Nathan, and I assume it was a tribute to my sleight of hand on the court, although some considered it traveling and carrying the ball.
I’ve written before of those names in our games. We had Little Doc, Reubenator, Tree, Stick, Microwave, Creamy Mondo, Otto, The Rev, and Hammer. I never knew all my teammates’ real names. My wife couldn’t get over the fact that I didn’t know the last names of men I showered with three times a week. All that mattered was that they passed the ball and could make an uncontested layup.
Of course moms can bump shopping carts in the grocery store and within two minutes be exchanging phone numbers and agreeing to host bridal showers for each other’s children.
I understand the same culture pervades the growing number of walking trails around the country, where participants give each other “trail names.” I’ll never experience that first hand, because walking for weeks without a destination is something I’ll never do.
Some people resist this urge to twist and truncate given names into nicknames.
(An aside: The word “nickname” derives from “an eke name,” as in “eke out,” or “an additional name”)
It is futile. Shortening names is built into our language. Elizabeth becomes Liz. Or Beth, or Liza, or Izzy. Katherine becomes Kathy. Michael becomes Mike.
Henry becomes Hank, for some reason. Robert becomes Bob, John becomes Jack, and William becomes Bill.
In today’s culture, you might make the case that nicknames are superfluous. Look at the self-ascribed appellations on today’s artists, stars, and musicians. The creative collections of upper and lower-case vowels and consonants obviate the need for “an eke name.” Our alphabet is pretty much eked out.