Why We Create Nicknames

Nicknames are clever inventions. They shorten proper names (Robert > Bob), identify occupations (Doc), highlight physical characteristics (Beanpole), express affection (Sweetie Pie). Proper names identify people; nicknames often tell us something about them. And that’s when the fun begins.

Nickname derives from the Middle English eke-name, which means “an additional name.” Good ones from childhood are imprinted in my brain. Fuzz had a tangle of red hair. Bean was known for his prolific flatulence. Dome had a formidable forehead. When my brother and I lived on Federal Hill in our college days, the neighbor’s cat was always asleep at the back door. We nicknamed him MSG.

The sports world loves nicknames. King JamesRG3Big PapiLarry Legend… Bill Bradley, former all-star forward for the New York Knicks, was notoriously frugal. Teammates called him Dollar Bill.

In the 1960s, 713,523 U.S. newborns were named John. It was the third most popular name, behind Michael and David. Despite the proliferation of Johns around me, I never had a nickname in grade school. That made my mother happy. She was a traditionalist who hated nicknames. When girls called my brother Robert and asked for Bobby, she winced. My younger brother James was James, not Jim. And I was not Jack.

At Nathanael Greene Middle School, there were two John Reillys. A nickname could have eliminated confusion, but the school’s solution was more pedestrian: middle initials would distinguish the two. John F. Reilly (or Reills, as I called my best friend) hated that.

In high school, a preppy friend gave me my first nickname: JW. That morphed to J Dubs and eventually Dubs, which had its advantages during basketball games – shouting it on fast breaks was easy.

My niece and nephew call me Uncle Johnny. Broached by anyone else, Johnny would have drawn my immediate censure. Coming from Emma and Oliver, it was endearing. So I am Uncle Johnny to them.

Amid all this name-mashing, a recent moniker stands out. Every day at lunchtime, I go to Ricky’s East Greenwich Farms on Main Street to buy a Coke or A&W Root Beer. Invariably, it’s 1:00, as I do my best imitation of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. When I walk in, the cashier says “1:00.” It started as an observation, evolved to a greeting, and is now an established nickname. The cashier at Ricky’s has dubbed me 1:00.

Late one night, we needed eggs at home. I ran down to Ricky’s. My friend was at the cash register. He smiled and said, “Not 1:00.”

We had a good laugh over his perfect punch line – one that never would have happened had he simply known me as John.

2 Comments

Great story! I have always been intrigued with nicknames. College kids are great inventors of them. I remember a friend being dubbed Conehead ( this was 1978, Saturday Night Live was all the rage). Somehow, that name was changed to Conical Top. The next thing you knew , he was CT. And CT he remained!

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