Two close friends recently tied the knot. Their names were Poodle and Sewage. My bloke and I attended the wedding. We have yet to buy the happy couple a gift. Upon reflection, I almost feel that we don’t need to bother. After all, we gave Poo and Sew the ultimate gift years ago. We gifted them their gorgeous nicknames.
Poodle’s real name is Max. Within minutes of meeting him, we had morphed Max into Maxi-Pad, which then became Maxi-Poodle, and then Poodle. Simpler, chic-er, shorter. (Well, not shorter than Max. But shorter than Maxi-Poodle.) Did he object? I don’t recall. That’s the thing about nicknames. The namer has all the power. Namees don’t really have a say in the matter.
And what of Sewage? (We soften it with a French pronunciation.) Sew has enjoyed a more extended nickname odyssey than Poodle. It all started back in the early ’80s. Her real name, if I remember correctly, is Deb. At college she earned the nickname Vous in recognition of her fondness for Franglais. Vous evolved into the even-more-Frenchy Vous-age, with a soft ahhhge at the end. Inevitably, Vous-age then became Sewage, and it stuck. These days Sewage often gets abbreviated to Sew, pronounced Sue. This has resulted in bystanders thinking her name is Susan. I always enjoy correcting them: “Sorry for the confusion, but her name is actually Sew-ahhhge.”
When a pal moved to Harlem a couple of years back, she was given a lovely moniker, free of charge, by her welcoming neighbors. They dubbed her “Snowflake.” My pal was very complimented. After all, is there anything more beautiful than a snowflake? Recently, however, it has been shortened to the slightly less appealing “Snowf,” as in, “Hey, Snowf! Looking good today!” My pal is hoping it changes again soon.
Regardless of the origin, nothing says, “I love you” like a sassy little nickname. So convinced am I of the intrinsically loving nature of nicknames, that when I hear people calling each other by their real names, I am forced to the conclusion that the individuals in question must loathe each other. Is there anything more hostile and terrifying than hearing one’s real name incorporated into a sentence? “No, Simon, I am simply not in the mood to watch Shahs of Sunset.”
There is a downside to nicknames: Keeping track of them can be a tad challenging. Over the years my husband has given me so many—Truffles, Oink, Shrimp, Slimey, Dwarf, Short-ass, Dinky, and my fave, Little Buddy—that, when I have to fill out a form or sign a check, my real name is so unfamiliar that it feels as if it refers to a dead pet.
Adding an additional layer of complexity is the fact that I am an immigrant with a whole other Brit back catalogue of nicknames. When emailing old friends, I am obliged to focus intently in order to remember which vintage nickname to use. One third of my old Brit pals call me Gerbil, another third calls me Pixie, and a third, gayer group goes for alliteration with Dottie Doonan. The third one has recently been shortened to Dot-age, as in dotage, as in Geritol. Geddit?
What makes a great nickname? First and foremost, a nickname must never, under any circumstances, be complimentary. Negativity is the key. In order to create something enduring, a nicknamer must focus on the least appealing aspect of a person’s physical or mental makeup. Those of you who read books like The Secret and Eat, Pray, Love will probably have a hard time understanding this concept. I strongly suggest that you persevere. Oodles of fun await you, once you get the hang of it. Don’t recoil from the negativity: Insulting nicknames are, after all, the ultimate indicators of a secure, loving relationship. For inspiration flip through a vintage copy of Private Eye magazine. Over the years, this satirical rag has led the way with caustic nicknames. To Eye readers Rupert Murdoch is known affectionately as The Dirty Digger, or just The Digger. Piers Morgan = Piers Moron, and Tony Blair is The Vicar (i.e. well-meaning but useless).
The best nicknames, however, have always emerged from the sports world. Consider The Worm for Dennis Rodman, or, for O.J. Simpson, The Juice. More often than not these sporty sobriquets were inspired by physical attributes. The sporting world was probably the last milieu on earth where nicknames mocking size and shape were encouraged and applauded. Examples include The Fridge (William Perry), The Kitchen (Nate Newton), The Pillsbury Throwboy (Jared Lorenzen), and my personal faves Robert “Tractor” Traylor and Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain. Nicknames have always added a playful dimension to competitive sport. Everyone is fair game.
My connections in the sporting world tell me that nicknames are sliding out of vogue. This is attributable to the contemporary obsession with “branding.” Athletes today are much too focused on entrepreneurial endeavors—“I want my own luxury clothing line and a strip-club license”—to embrace an image-corroding nickname. There are a couple of exceptions: Andrei Kirilenko, who is Russian and has worn the shirt number 47, is nicknamed “AK47.” And a rising basketball star named Aquille Carr became known as “The Crime Stopper” because he is, allegedly, so entertaining to watch that everyone in the neighborhood, even the ne’er-do-wells, would turn out to support him.
With the exception of the rather clunky and obvious preponderance of amalgam nicknames—ScarJo, Brangelina, Kimye, etc.—celebrity culture appears not to be producing any great handles. That’s where Beyoncé comes in. Permit me to explain:
The lovely songstress is blessed with one of the most unique names in the history of entertainment. Those who are too squeamish to dole out negative nicknames might consider creating their very own Beyoncé name generators. Take the names of your nearest and dearest and simply “oncé” them. Thus Aunt Mildred becomes Aunt Mildroncé. Uncle Irving becomes Irvoncé and Cousin Dennis becomes Dennoncé. The resulting names—with their dotted line to Blue Ivy’s gorgeous, multitalented mom—are unlikely to be met with anything other than delight. Since bestowing nicknames has zero impact on your wallet, why not go mass. Pick a large group of people and simply Beyoncé all their names. This also works as a corporate gift: You can oncayyy an entire organization without spending a nickel.
Or should I say Budyoncé?