A curious topic came up recently in my house when I was talking to my teenage daughter. Granted, talking to teenagers can bring up all manner of curious subjects, but this one had to do with nicknames. As with many conversations I have with my children, I came away from this one feeling old and ever so outdated in my grown up thinking. I am not really hip or cool so I have long ago stopped pretending my children think I am any of those things.
We were talking about a number of her friends and I was trying to impress her with the fact that I actually knew who they were by name. So I was referring to each of them, identifying each one and I called one of them “William” more than once. She interrupted me and said, “Ummm exactly who is this ‘William’ you keep talking about?” So I described him and who he hangs out with and she’s like “Oh you mean ‘Skip’. Don’t call him ‘William’. He doesn’t like it. He wants to be called ‘Skip’”.
Oh. I stand corrected. Clearly I’m old. I have arcane rules of social interaction that dictate the way I address and identify people I barely know. I call people by their actual names unless we are comfortably familiar with one another and I feel like I have crossed a line of friendship with them and have permission to call them something more appropriate. I clearly am just getting to know this fellow and therefore I do not feel comfortable calling him by his nickname, even though that is his personal preference and everyone else does it. Old school is the only school, I always say.
I tried to explain these subtle nuances to my daughter between appropriate terms of address and how we in twenty first century America have very few rules of engagement compared to past generations. There was a time when strangers were addressed politely and adults were honored and respected. Not only do we bear no distinction between familiar versus formal address, but we clearly have taught a whole generation that it is acceptable to approach a total stranger by declaring, “Yo!” A rather curious term indeed.
This somewhat formal lecture fell on deaf ears. She wasn’t receptive nor did I convert her to my way of thinking. She pretty much wanted me to promise to use the nickname at least when in his presence so as not to utterly humiliate her and ruin her life because her mom has no clue. Very well. I will try to remember and go against every fiber of propriety in my conscience and call the young man “Skip”. Sigh. It just feels wrong.
Nicknames are ever so curious aren’t they? I began to wonder where the concept and practice of nicknames developed. So I did a little research. It turns out that the Old English word ‘ekename’ came into use roughly in the thirteen hundreds and it means “additional name”. Over time, a mispronunciation of the word with its modifier (an ekename) began to be familiarized as ‘a nekename’. I can easily see how this could happen and eventually our modern word ‘nickname’ was born. The way a person might acquire a nickname may originate from family or friends who create an endearing term to highlight a particular quality or attribute. Sometimes nicknames develop because of a comical incident that becomes associated with a particular person. Nicknames were also assigned in moments of ridicule and mockery, in which case they are less appreciated by the recipient, though often just as enduring as those given in affection.
So the origin of the nickname is fairly innocuous and relatively widespread. I simply feel silly applying a nickname to someone with whom I have no direct personal connection. Perhaps if William and I spend some quality time together and he indicates that we are buds and I should henceforth call him Skip, I will feel better about it. Until that time, I shall retain the formal social convention of my own generation. I will call him William and he will undoubtedly call me “Yo!”