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Exploring the Anatomy of a Nickname

Posted by | September 13, 2010

William H. Bonney: “Buckshot George”, that’s your name. You wanted a name, that’s it. “Buckshot George”. It’s a good name.
Hendry French: My name is Hendry William French.
William H. Bonney: That’s a good name too.

If you grew up in my circle of friends, there’s a good chance you had a nickname. In fact, if you didn’t have a nickname, and we realized it, we did our best to make sure you got one. Depending on who you were, or what you looked like, that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

Although they were flattering most of the time, some of them were harsh enough to get us damned to hell by the Politically Correct Association – which doesn’t exist by the way, so we’re safe.

The point is, as young, immature kids, we handed out nicknames that we felt fit, whether they were polite or not.

While thinking about it recently, it occurred to me that although we did all have nicknames, it was never a situation where we all sat down and said “‘So-and-so’ needs a nickname.” Actually, it was quite the opposite. All the nicknames came about naturally, so much so that if you asked me to I couldn’t actually pin down the moment of origin for more than one or two.

This leads to the question of what exactly goes into the evolution of a nickname. The success a nickname has is dependant on many factors, each no less important than the others.

For instance, it has to be relevant. A random nickname with no connection to the person it’s given to will have no chance. There must be a connection between the person and the name.

It has to be original. An unoriginal nickname can be successful, but to be noteworthy it should be something you don’t see everyday.

And it has to stick. There is a critical point every successful nickname goes through which determines whether it will survive. In order to last as a nickname, it must stick to the person it’s given – meaning people have to naturally start calling them by it more often than not.

Join me as I explore these criteria and the rest of the factors that make up the anatomy of a nickname…

Where Nicknames Originate

There is no magic nickname wishing well – no store you can buy them from. In fact, it’s bad form to ask for or suggest your own nickname in any way whatsoever.

Bo added the “Delicious” part to his nickname on his own, but we all chose to allow this to happen, mostly because Bo has an ego the size of Alaska and it was just easier that way.

In one way, shape or form you have to earn a nickname. Our buddy Hendry William French (from the quote above) learned this the hard way when he asked Billy the Kid for a nickname in Young Guns 2. Billy told him he’d have to earn it, and by the time he did, Hendry realized his own name was good enough.

The unfortunate part of a nickname is you don’t normally get a say in keeping it if enough people decide to give you one. If it is less than flattering, but it catches on, you’re stuck.

So the question that needs answering is “Where do nicknames come from?”

The easy answer is: from your buddies.

But, how, exactly, do they come up with them?

I did some brainstorming, mostly from my own experiences, and came up with the following ways I’ve seen nicknames originate. They aren’t exactly scientific, so don’t hail them as the be all, end all for nicknames.

Variation of Your Real Name

We call him ‘Bo’ because is is a shortened version of his last name, Bovenzi. His dad is Bo, and so is his brother. Maybe that’s why he “needed” to add ‘Delicious’ to the end of his, just so we all could tell the difference.

We have another buddy whose last name is Smith. We call him ‘Smit’. ‘Smitty’ is played out and is so your dad’s generation.

Some of my brother’s friends call him ‘Mel’, because his initials are M.E.L. It has nothing to do with comparing him to this guy. Though some may argue.

A shortening or abbreviation of someone’s real name is a safe and adequate source for a nickname. It’s also a pretty good way to have the name stick.

Sometimes using a variation of the real name takes on a life of its own. Take my friend ‘Feez’ for instance.

His last name is Field, which naturally spawned Fieldsy as his nickname. When someone who didn’t know his real last name heard us calling him it, they thought we said Feezly, and started calling him that.

Naturally, we thought it was hilarious, so started doing it too. Not long after that his nickname was given a nickname, and you have ‘Feez’.

Descriptive Nicknames

These types of nicknames are when cruelty could enter the picture. For example, ‘Fat Pat’ for a guy (or girl) named Pat. This example also uses the rhyming names technique, which from a nicknamee standpoint is never a good thing.

Sometimes descriptive nicknames are used in a reverse fashion, like calling the largest person in your crew ‘Tiny’.

Then, of course, you have the traditional descriptive-type nicknames that are adequate but lack originality. Some examples of those: ‘Red’, ‘Lefty’, ‘Curly’, etc. These are useful as one-hitters, in an effort to mock or tease a buddy, but using them as their “regular” nickname just shows a lack of creativity. Don’t be that guy.

Holy Crap, That’s Hilarious

Every so often a nickname that might not seem like anything special finally reveals its origins. This usually happens when someone already has a nickname when you meet them, and then after getting to know them better, you hear the story behind the name.

We have a buddy named Otis, and we’ve always called him that. His real name is something different of course, but for about as long as I’ve known him he’s been Otis.

After years of calling him by his nickname, we finally sought out the story behind it. And I’m so glad we did.

Otis has a scar on his upper lip that he claims he’s had since he was just a couple years old. Apparently he got it when his lip got caught in an escalator at the mall. How exactly that happens I have no idea, but after I told this story at his wedding (I was best man, but won’t be anymore once he reads this), his father confirmed it was true.

So where does ‘Otis’ come from in all this?

Have you ever noticed the name of the company that makes most elevators and escalators? Next time you step off one, check out the name plate on the floor. That’s right, they’re ‘Otis’ brand.

The One-Timer

Sometimes something that you do one time becomes so infamous that it earns you a nickname. On a rare occasion the name just works so well that it sticks forever. That’s what happened to our contributing author Mike Bovenzi.

One random day years ago, Mike left his house wearing a t-shirt that had a big (almost life-sized) graphic of Cletus, the hick farmer from the Simpsons. That was all it took. From that day on, he was known as ‘Cletus’. In fact, the name stuck so well, that a few have even called his brother Bo ‘Big Cletus’.

You know your nickname has truly made it when it starts affecting the rest of your family, too.

Getting a Nickname to Stick

So how exactly do you get a nickname to stick? There are two critical factors to getting a nickname to stick. The first is it must be used a majority of the time by a majority of the people.

For instance, if you have five people in your group of friends, at least three of them need to call the person by their nickname. And they need to do it more often than they use the real name. After a couple weeks of doing this, the nickname will become just as natural as the birth name.

The second factor is it must be relevant. What I mean is the nickname must be a good one. If it’s lousy, it won’t hold up to the first factor anyway. Good nicknames (names that stick) usually carry some sort of meaning or have relevance to the person they’re given to. I’ve seen good nicknames fail to catch on, so one that’s irrelevant has no chance.

Then again, there are always exceptions to the rule…

Taking Pride in Your Nickname

I’ll admit, some nicknames aren’t the most flattering. Still, there’s a certain element of pride that you should take in even the most repulsive name, especially if it’s given to you by your buddies, or for the ladies who might be reading this, your girlfriends.

See, a nickname is a reflection of love. If they didn’t love you, your friends wouldn’t bother to make fun of you.

It just wouldn’t be worth their time.

But when they put forth the effort to give you a nickname that is successful enough to stick, it becomes a part of you. It’s who you are just as much as your real name, especially in that group of friends. If you don’t embrace it, it will only encourage them to call you by it all the more.

However, if you do embrace it, they will still refer to you by that name, but at least this time it will be done affectionately.

Once it sticks, your nickname becomes an extension of who you are. It is a part of you and when your name comes up when you’re not around, that name will represent you.

Be proud.

Oh and one last thing.

As awesome as it is to have a nickname, remember that they can’t be forced. You should never, ever do something intentionally and without purpose, just in hopes that a nickname will come from it. It only works once in a blue moon, and can be very, very dangerous.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Otis.


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3 Comments so far
  1. Chris Bovenzi September 13, 2010 6:47 pm

    Bo ain’t a name, it’s a way of life.

  2. RJ September 14, 2010 7:50 am

    Yes, Bo. We know.

  3. Chris Bovenzi September 14, 2010 8:51 am

    Quiet down Robert