The Name Game

Signifier and signified. It refers to a seemingly innocent act of naming. Beyond that, it can represent the relationship between the word and the object; perhaps implicit in this naming process is also a love triangle of sorts. The named, the namer and the name itself.

I’ve been thinking of this a lot, but not as some grand socio-linguistic, culturally binding, institutionally recognized endeavor. Rather, I have been thinking about nicknames. Why do we use them? What is their purpose? Why do I feel deprived without one?

As a kid, my Mom called me Squirrel, after the way my hair looked in a ponytail. In the 6th grade, I had the dubious distinction of “Backseat Colomb”, which was given to me by the teacher. (Not to worry, nothing depraved, illicit or illegal occurred, except my cheeky answer to “What are some Valentine’s Day traditions?”) Since then I have accrued a number of others, and bestowed them as well. Nicknaming is not unique to Americans. In a brief literature search, some papers cropped about Italian, Irish and German traditions surrounding nicknames. In a completely unscientific survey of my circle, Peg Leg, Stretch, Woman, and Sweet Pea cropped up. These names elicited an array of reactions from the named, from fondness to distaste.

Perhaps a seemingly frivolous thing, nicknaming performs a social function. Many nicknames are acquired during the process of building relationships. We have ones from childhood, transitioning to high school and university, from falling in love. In a sense, nicknames reframe our identity, not in that they necessarily strip something away, but that they provide context linking the named and the namer.

The act of naming makes something familiar, breaks down one set of barriers and builds another. It is a mechanism for bonding and bestows a sense of belonging. It defines one’s position in a social group (in-group versus out-group), as well as individualizing that person. In engenders affection and acceptance. Of course not all nicknames are endearing. They can be cruel and shred a person’s confidence and sense of self-worth as well. However they don’t have to be. A well-chosen name can lift someone up, make them smile and give them a deep sense of connection. It’s this aspect that I adore, and crave.

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