Nickname: the Dubious Gift that Lasts

“Hey Cushytail!” A little girl with thick brown hair and freckles hollers this across the playground.

“Mongreloid!!” I yell back, tugging at the waist of my bellbottoms, pulling them up so I won’t trip as I run.

Enemies about to start a fight? A case of bullying? Nope. We are best friends in elementary school. Cushytail is her nickname for me—my given last name was Cushman. Mongreloid is my nickname for her—her last name was Morrill. We run towards each other, laughing hysterically, then skip off to the teeter-totters together.

Until recently, I always thought of this ritual, these nicknames, as the innocent, silly wordplay of little girls, a goofy morphing of our names to signify that we were best, best buddies.

When I grew up to become a teacher, of course I always discouraged bullying and the calling of names. But I never spent a lot of time deeply thinking about how kids name each other or about these particular nicknames of my own childhood, until I chose to rename myself. At 55 years old, in the midst of a midlife rite of passage where I was growing and changing on many levels, I chose a new name for myself: first, middle, and last.

The choosing of my own name now has me paying attention to the subtleties of naming. It’s got me thinking about the power of names to shape us, as well as the power we have to shape others through the connotations of seemingly innocent signifiers.

I don’t remember when my friend and I started those two nicknames. The calling out of them never felt hurtful; we always found them incredibly funny. In fact, even as adults, she and I can sometimes break them out for a good chuckle, harking back to our childhood camaraderie.

But in looking at these two signs, really, Cushytail connotes either a big fat butt, which I have never actually had, or some sort of hairy animal appendage. Not all that flattering! Did this work on me unconsciously I wonder?

And Mongreloid! Where the heck did I get that? A mongrel is a mixed breed dog, a mutt … usually a vision of bones and mange, licking an empty tin can. It’s an outdated, inappropriate term for a mixed breed person, but I doubt that is what I meant as we didn’t have many of those in the sixties in my tiny white bread New England town. And then there is the not-so-subtle hint of “mongoloid” in there—a dated reference to a person with Down’s Syndrome, or (and I doubt I knew this at the time) a division of Asian or Arctic indigenous peoples. The connotations were not very kind. The word was insensitive to persons with disabilities and to people of another race. I’d created an equally terrible nickname for my best friend.

I’m not sure the adults in our lives ever heard the two of us say these names to each other. If they had, I am not sure they would have thought much of it, and maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe not. But it’s certainly food for thought.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I argue that this old adage is a colossal lie. This line is handed out to kids as a way to “protect” from nicknames. But repeating this line in the face of a taunt or even a well-meant endearment likely does nothing to deflate what actually goes on internally—emotionally, unconsciously.

When we are named, when we hear ourselves called a word or phrase, our brain automatically takes in the words and processes meaning—denotations and connotations—and then associates meaning with the self. If we are resilient, we might be able shrug this off. With higher self-esteem, we may be able to minimize the damage of a negative suggestion in a nickname. But if a child has low self-esteem, is repeatedly bullied with a nickname, or if a person with authority, such as a parent, older sibling, coach, or teacher, dishes out a nickname, that name’s underlying meaning can settle into the psyche and work on that person for years.

Children and adults alike are frequently renamed via nicknames for any number of reasons: shortening a name that is too hard to say, a term of endearment, to capture a physical or personality trait, to tease, to highlight a talent or skill, to remind of a foolish mistake made … the list goes on, and not all the reasons are bad. We like to think that the spirit in which a nickname comes about can mean that it is not damaging: it’s just in fun. Or, it means I love you. But do we really think about the words themselves? About the power of words to signify a range of associations? I would say, based on my experience with my friend, that many of us don’t. Maybe we should.