When my father was growing up in 1930s Brooklyn, every boy in his neighborhood had a nickname. There was Googie and Abie Ashcan (born Abraham Ashkin). Even Dad, a Jew growing up in an Irish neighborhood, had one. He was Murph.
Sadly, nicknames seem to be on the wane, and there may be a good reason. In Dad’s day, the pool of names was relatively small. In 1950, there were only about 10,000 names on the Social Security list of those given to five or more babies. In 2018, it was over 32,000, says Pamela Redmond Satran, co-founder of nameberry.com. In past generations, she says, “With more people named John in the same classroom, company, and even family, it became necessary to come up with ways to tell them apart, which could mean calling them Big John or JJ or J-Man.”
Too bad for nicknames. A good one tells a story and can be an endless source of delight. Take Douglas Corrigan. In 1938, the aviator was scheduled to fly from New York City to Long Beach, California. Instead, he ended up in Ireland, and a nickname was born: Wrong Way Corrigan.
So let’s start a movement to keep nicknames alive by bestowing them on everyone we know. It’s easy. A degree from Harvard wasn’t needed to take one look at slender country crooner Ottis Dewey Whitman Jr. and say, “Hey, let’s call him Slim Whitman instead.” On the flip side, when 300-pound William Perry hit the NFL in 1985, his enormous nickname—the Refrigerator—seemed to be the ultimate moniker. (And so it was, until 400-pound Nate “The Kitchen” Newton arrived a few years later.)
An odd habit might lend itself to a creative label. Reputed mobster Louis Attanasio had a killer sense of humor, as evidenced by his tendency to laugh anytime he heard of a murder—hence the nickname Louie HaHa. Caryn Elaine Johnson—aka Whoopi Goldberg—told the New York Times that she couldn’t stop passing gas on stage. When someone compared her to a whoopee cushion, it stuck.
Other times, a distinctive wardrobe choice can turn into something permanent. One night, when he was just starting out with a band called the Phoenix Jazzmen, musician Gordon Sumner took the stage wearing a black-and-yellow-striped sweater. A bandmate thought he looked like a bee and dubbed him Sting.
Toby Triumph for Reader's Digest
When Destiny Hope Cyrus was a baby, her sunny disposition prompted her father, singer Billy Ray Cyrus, to call her Smiley, which morphed into Miley. Not all showbiz nicknames are as charming. Richard Henry Sellers’s older brother was stillborn. His parents apparently never got over his death and called Richard by his late brother’s name, Peter, which is the name the great British actor took.
Over the years, certain professions have been especially welcoming of nicknames. Give props to rap stars—think Jay Z (Shawn Corey Carter) or Snoop Dogg (Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr.)—who are keeping the tradition alive. The same goes for baseball, which has a long history of them: “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Ted “The Splendid Splinter” Williams, “Hammerin’ ” Hank Aaron. Of course, these are all pretty tame, considering that the locker room is a hive of brilliant belittlement. Pitcher Marc Rzepczynski’s tongue-defying consonant-clogged name prompted teammates to dub him Scrabble.
People are always calling politicians names; a few are even printable. When Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California after his Hollywood career in the Terminator movies, someone coined a brilliant mash-up: the Governator. And when our nation’s ninth president, William Henry Harrison, passed away a month after taking office, he was replaced by his vice president, John Tyler, who lost out on the nickname lottery when he was referred to derisively as His Accidency.
The toughest person to create a nickname for may be your own significant other. A person lamented on reddit.com, “I once called my girlfriend ‘muffin top.’ Yeah, that didn’t end so well.” On the other hand: “My wife started calling me ‘Poop’ in the most endearing way possible. Example: ‘Poop, I love you!’ or ‘Poop, I need a hug.’ At first, I was a little taken aback, but I eventually started calling her by the same name. Now poop is the most commonly used word in our household.”
So, ready to rebrand everyone you know? Just remember this about nicknames: Even the lamest ones say, You are important enough to me that I took the time to think of something silly to call you. OK, Pookie Bear?