The word “nickname” comes to us from the Middle English reference to “an eke name,” where “eke” means additional. So now you know that, and if you’re like me then you will now always pronounce it like “neekname.”
Obviously a lot of nicknames are just shortened versions of the given name:
Jim, Tim, Tom.
Don, Ron, Jon.
They’re dean’s list in simplicity, but are flunking in creativity. They’re considerately efficient nicknames, not wanting to waste a moment of the name caller’s time. It’s commendable, though one wonders about some examples of the simple shortening. Like Steve for Steven or Pete for Peter. Are we really saving any time dropping that one letter?
There are some that shorten yet make up their own rules. Elizabeth spawns Liza, Beth, and Betty. I think we all support that. But the guy on the radio who shortens Jonathan to Than? I hate that guy. Margaret breaks into Maggie, Meg, and amazingly Peggy. Google that if you don’t believe me. I have an aunt Martha that we call Mott. It’s short AND creative. Will and Ron, are you paying attention?
Some nicknames are creative, but at the expense of efficiency. Or sanity for that matter. Sally is short for Sarah, and Molly is short for Mary. What? Of course, they seem perfectly reasonable compared to Jack being short for John. There’s actually a fascinating reason for it that involves the Dutch practice of using “-kins” for terms of endearment, like lambkins. As I said, Google it.
Some nicknames are short to the point of laziness. D.J. and J.R. have always annoyed me. Extra points to you if you thought Tanner and Ewing. J.R. is cool if it’s short for so-and-so junior. It has a country authenticity bordering on hipster chic. I don’t follow sports much, but you have to feel bad for guys called L.T. or A.Rod. You know they’ve heard of The Fridge, Pistol Pete, and The Yankee Clipper. What would you rather be called, A.I. or Clyde the Glide?
There are nickname niches. Less-common sub-genres. The ones that misdirect like the XXL dude called “Tiny.” The ones that may tell a little too much like “Digger.” The ones that don’t flatter one's character like “Slick.” The throw-aways for when you (clearly) don’t know the person’s name like “chief’ or “pal.” There’s even group nicknames like “folks” and “fam.”
You can believe it or not, but when I was a kid I was given the nickname “Rock.” Not “The Rock,” you understand, just a “Rock.” Only a couple of people used it when I was little, but I sure tried to get it going again in my teens. You can’t pick your own. I know a guy who absolutely insists on being called T-Bird. The more he corrects me, the less I want to do it.
Not picking you own nickname is especially true when it comes to trucker handles and pilot callsigns. You’re given it by your peers and you hope for a good one.
“Maverick, Bandit, Hollywood”. Nice.
“Goose, Toad, Braindead.” Meh.
The best nicknames that you don’t get to pick yourself are the ones you get from the Secret Service when you achieve high political office. Barack and Michelle were “Renegade” and “Renaissance.” Donald and Melania are “Mogul” and “Muse.” Awesome, right? The protective detail called Joe Biden “Celtic,” but I’m not sure if it was with the hard-k like the famous knot or the s-sound like the basketball team. The best Secret Service name ever bestowed was on Al Gore’s daughter Karenna. Are you ready? “Smurfette.” Once again, Google it.
I’m grateful for nicknames because sometimes they rise above convenience or humor. Sometimes they can reveal someone in a different light. I have a friend that I respect greatly who is a serious guy with a serious name but is called “Buddy” by his family. When I found that out, I saw a facet of him that made me appreciate him even more. I had an uncle called “Plow,” and just typing that evokes deep feelings of love and loss. Many people knew him as Shannon. I’m grateful that I knew him as “Plow.” My Uncle “Huey” is the same way, as is my honorary Uncle “Snugs.”
What’s in a name? Sometimes not much. But sometimes a whole lot.