What's in a Nickname?
If you’ve ever thought of calling your long-limbed infant “Chicken Legs” or your toddler “Booger,” think again: some pet names stick around long enough to do damage! Here’s a humorous look at the perils of nicknaming.
When I was a kid, my parents saddled me with this unwieldy moniker: Mere-Bear Sydney-Hood.
Why? Haven’t got a clue. Don’t even know what a Sydney-Hood is.
Perhaps they were in the throes of a 1960s flashback. Maybe they were sleep deprived. Possibly I’d thrown my wrinkled canned peas onto the floor or into the dusty blades of the kitchen floor fan one too many times and they were exacting psychological revenge.
Granted, the “Mere-Bear” part of the nickname was cute, but the “Sydney-Hood” segment haunted me through the halls of my high school. Boys on whom I had crushes would laugh, “Hey, it’s Mere-Bear Sydney-Hood,” as my face flooded with a rush of blood turning me into a blushing, bulbous, walking turnip head. Sure, when I was 3, calling me Mere-Bear Sydney-Hood might’ve been adorable, might’ve seemed harmless. But by age 15, when I’d transformed into an awkward girl with a mouthful of braces and a bad haircut, the nickname was an albatross.
Nicknames were common in my household. My father loved pet names and assigned them to everyone and everything. Our dog Daphne was Daffy Doodles. A childhood friend of my brother’s who resembled Whitey from “Leave it to Beaver” to this day is still called Whitey in some circles. When my dark-haired mother had, shall we say, “difficulty” with a particular hair coloring, my father took to calling her Big Red. My dad, in fact, is the brain surgeon behind the Sydney-Hood debacle.
He’s not alone. Lots of parents and siblings, including me, lob nicknames at kids and sometimes, much to the kids’ chagrin, they stick.
When my kid brother was little, he often had multiple layers of dirt and muck stuck to his body that he didn’t want to wash off for all the candy bars at Duke’s corner convenience store. No kidding, you could tell how long it had been since his last washing by examining the color and tone of the different layers on his arms, not unlike checking the circles inside the core of a tree to determine its age. I, the affectionate, loving sister responded by dubbing him Scum’s Rash.
Now he’s a perfectly coiffed attorney whose hair smells like apples and whose fingernails are neat and clean. Scum’s Rash he ain’t. So did the nasty nickname, which he still despises, drive him to become a man who frequents an upscale Boston salon?
Which brings me to this question: When parents and siblings tag someone in the family with a nickname—like when I, in the tradition of my father, casually refer to my 2-year-old son Casey as The Thug, or to my 5-year-old daughter Abbey as The Diva—does it create a self-fulfilling prophesy or set the child up for inevitable torment?
Toddler Casey does, in all truthfulness, act like a thug. It’s not unusual to find him, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, picking up long, hard objects—like whiffle ball bats and plastic hockey sticks—and swinging them to fend off his twin 5-year-old siblings.
Once, after Casey punched his sister for some unknown, muddled toddler reason, his father put him on “the thinking chair,” and admonished him, “You don’t punch people.”
Casey contemplated this directive while displaying an appropriate, albeit phony, exaggerated, sad face. He then turned toward my husband Scott and offered, “How ’bout kick?”
“No Casey, no punching and no kicking,” his father told him.
Another pregnant pause. “How ’bout with a hockey stick?”
“No!” Scott exclaimed. (He really did exclaim. I heard him.) “You don’t hit anyone at all!”
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