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  • Kirsten Bell

The purpose of nicknames

While I was working on ‘What’s in a name?’, I became interested in the topic of nicknames and how they relate to personal names. This piece is a reflection of that research and is probably best read after the piece on names, as it assumes some familiarity with its content and arguments.


Ragnar Hairy Pants and Sergeant Pretty Legs. No, these are not the name of children’s books, but rather the nicknames of a ninth century Danish king and King Charles XIV of Sweden respectively. According to History Hit, other noteworthy historical nicknames include ‘The Blubberer’ (Viscount Goderich), ‘The Slobberer’ (King Alfonso IX of León) and, perhaps most famously, ‘The Terrible’ (Ivan IV Vasilyevich).

While few of us acquire such distinctive (and unfortunate) sobriquets, most of us have nicknames in addition to our personal names. This is not a distinctively western or European phenomenon. In Naming and Identity: A Cross-Cultural Study of Personal Naming Practices, the anthropologist Richard Alford found that the use of nicknames was common in two thirds of societies in the Human Relations Area Files: a vast anthropological database used by anthropologists to study what kinds of cultural and societal features are universal.

Alford also found that nicknames were more common in societies where personal names were less unique. In summarising the sparse literature on nicknames, the onomastician (i.e., specialist in name studies) Theodore Holland suggests likewise. Highlighting the significance of nicknames ‘in cultures where ambiguity exists in the formal naming system’, he argues that they basically become an ‘onomastic necessity’ to avoid constant confusion.

Clearly, nicknames provide a useful shorthand in contexts where multiple people share the same name. For example, given the sheer volume of Russian tsars named ‘Ivan’, ‘Ivan the Terrible’ saves a lot of confusion as a descriptor.1 But nicknames are clearly more complicated than this. Despite being the only person in the world with the name ‘Jermajesty’, I’m reasonably confident that Jermaine Jackson’s son has a nickname, for reasons both practical (his name is daft) and logistical (his name is four syllables long).

It’s certainly the case that nicknames are often diminutives – i.e., shortened versions of our names. For example, my primary nickname is ‘Kirsty’. Growing up, it was the name I was universally known by, although as an adult I became used to ‘Kirsten’ in professional settings.2 This speaks to a general rule of diminutives: the closer the relationship, the shorter it generally is (although this obviously depends to some degree on the length of the personal name itself).

For example, my name moves from ‘Kirsten’ to ‘Kirsty’ to ‘Kir’ (or ‘Kirps’3) as the relationship gets closer. Likewise, my sister’s name is ‘Nicole’, she is commonly known by ‘Nikki’, and amongst those closest to her becomes ‘Nik’. Notably, neither of us like relative strangers using the diminutive form: it feels too personal. This is because diminutives are often a sign of affection and intimacy; they indicate a certain type of relationship.

Of course, this is true to some degree of personal names themselves, which is why politeness used to dictate that people wait to use a Christian name until they had been given leave to do so. It’s also why it is still reasonably common for children to call their friends’ parents ‘Mr X’ and ‘Mrs Y’, although norms around this seem to be in flux, causing a considerable degree of confusion amongst parents regarding how they should introduce their kids to other adults, and how they prefer to be introduced in turn.

But as James Parker observes in An ode to nicknames, they aren’t just differentiators or diminutives; instead, nicknames often describe something more intrinsic about our identity in terms of how others perceive us. After all, nicknames are names bestowed by the people who know us, rather than names assigned to us at birth or that we give ourselves. In his words, ‘Your friends, however – and your enemies – they know who you are. They’ll give you your real name. Behind your back, sometimes, which almost guarantees its accuracy: They’re reporting on angles and aspects of you that you can’t even see’. Indeed, part of Trump’s initial success as a politician was his gift for coming up with derisive nicknames for his opponents that stuck – primarily because they articulated widely held perceptions and prejudices.

Trump drawing by Isabelle Blanchemain (reproduced under CC license)

As the existence of similarly derisive historical nicknames suggests, this is not a new phenomenon. For example, his nickname ‘The Slobberer’ tells us that King Alfonso had a tendency to slobber – apparently, he would foam at the mouth whenever he became upset – but it also also tells us something about how he was perceived by the nobility and his subjects, given that they chose to focus on this particular attribute rather than others.4 This suggests that nicknames have important social functions. To quote Theodore Holland, nicknames ‘serve to maintain the character of social relationships as they are experienced by community members’: they might express either enmity and contempt or solidarity and intimacy.

A good illustration of the social functions of nicknames can be found in the 1997 British film The Full Monty, which is set in Sheffield in the 1990s. The key characters, a group of workers left unemployed following the closure of a local steel mill, are Gaz, Dave, Horse, Gerald, Lomper and Lunchbox. Notably, all the characters have nicknames except Gerald, who is, not coincidentally, their former boss. Echoes of this former hierarchical relationship are evident throughout the film, although the characters nevertheless bond through their experience of creating a Chippendales-style strip show (the film’s name stems from the troupe’s promise to go the ‘full monty’).

Four of the characters have longstanding nicknames, although the source of their nicknames differs. The sobriquets ‘Gaz’ and ‘Dave’ are based on the characters’ given names (Gary and David), although Dave’s identifier is frequently ‘Fat Dave’, based on his portly physique, which is a considerable source of insecurity for the character throughout the film. The name ‘Lomper’, on the other hand, is presumably based on the character’s last name, although we never learn what it is. We never learn Horse’s actual name either, but it turns out that his nickname does not stem from being hung like a horse (much to the disappointment of the other characters).

Lunchbox, whose name is actually ‘Guy’, is the final entrant to the group. Initially unknown to the other members, Gaz bestows the nickname during Lunchbox’s successful audition, when it becomes apparent that he has an inordinately large package, or ‘lunchbox’.5 The nickname thus serves to simultaneously identify his most salient feature for the troupe members and create a social relationship with them, thereby establishing him as part of the group.

Arguably, the role that nicknames play in reinforcing social solidarity reaches its epitome in Australian society. According to the anthropological linguist Anna Wierzbicka, the Australian system of nicknaming reflects core cultural values of solidarity, equality and anti-sentimentalism. To quote the Australian linguist Chi Luu, ‘Nicknames may seem trivial, and even childish, but they also reveal how Australians see themselves and relate to each other, all baked (under a hot summer sun) into their language use’.

One oft-remarked feature of Australian English is our tendency to abbreviate words, which means that virtually everything has a nickname.6 According to Luu, there are five primary types of abbreviations we use: —y/ie endings, (‘exxy’ for expensive, ‘mozzie’ for mosquito) —o endings (‘arvo’ for afternoon), —s endings (‘turps’ for turpentine), —ers/as endings (‘Maccas’ for McDonald’s), and —z/za endings (‘soz’ for sorry).

These rules apply to personal names as well as objects, places and emotional states. So, Terence becomes ‘Terry’ (or ‘Tezza’), Gordon becomes ‘Gordo’, Scott becomes ‘Scottie’, Dave becomes ‘Dave-o’, Leisa becomes ‘Leis’, and Kerry and Barry become ‘Kezza’ and ‘Bazza’ respectively.7 However, nicknames are frequently based on surnames rather than personal names, although this is arguably more common for males.8 Thus, Peter Jackson becomes ‘Jacko’, Andrew Ham becomes ‘Hammy’, David Marchezini becomes ‘Marcho’, and Bruce Kapferer becomes 'Kappy'.9

Notice that some nicknames are actually longer than the names themselves – at least in terms of the number of syllables that they contain. As Luu notes, ‘This shows that though nicknames might generally end up as a shorter, easier version of something, length is probably not the most crucial aspect of a nickname. Rather, nicknames carry certain other pragmatic senses, such as a rejection of formality, and breeding familiarity’.

Complicating matters further, nicknames are often ironic and irreverent. For example, until fairly recently, red-headed males in Australia were often nicknamed ‘Blue’ or ‘Bluey’.10 Likewise, someone who always shows up after the work is done might receive the nickname ‘Blister’, someone who always avoids their turn to ‘shout’ (or buy a round11) at the pub might be nicknamed ‘Whisper’, and so on. Even famous Australians are not immune: the actress Margot Robbie’s childhood nickname was ‘Maggot’.

So, what’s in a nickname? Probably even more than what’s in a personal name itself, because while you don’t choose your name or your nickname, you can escape the former, but not the latter. At the end of the day, nicknames are fundamentally social: a constant verbal reminder that no man is an island. In the words of Theodore Holland, they are a 'human mirror in which we see reflected the intersection of individual lives and community experience. So if you want to know who you really are – at least in the minds of those who know you – all you have to do is listen for your nickname.


1 This aspect of descriptors is satirised to entertaining effect in the 1990 Australian movie The Big Steal. About a teenaged protagonist named Daniel, or ‘Danny’ (Ben Mendelsohn in an early role), throughout the movie, whenever one of his parents mentions Danny, the other immediately responds, ‘Is that Daniel the Lion Tamer or Daniel our son?’

2 Indeed, I now actively prefer it in some contexts; for example, I would not want my students calling me ‘Kirsty’, which would feel too informal for the relationship.

3 ‘Kirps’ is restricted to my immediate family; I would baulk at anyone else using it, primarily because it’s a pet name more than a nickname.

4 For example, his Wikipedia profile suggests that Alfonso was instrumental in helping to modernise and democratise León. However, he doesn’t appear to have been especially well-liked, in part because of his hordes of illegitimate children and the fact that both of his marriages to cousins were annulled because the blood relationship was deemed too close. That said, I suppose ‘Alfonso the Slobberer’ is probably better than ‘Alfonso the Incestuous’. It’s also entirely possible that slobbering, like snot, did not hold the same negative connotations in the 12th century that it does today.

5 Random fact: I first saw this movie in South Korea, and ‘Lunchbox’ was translated as ‘Gimbap’, which is the Korean term for sushi. Everyone in the cinema found his nickname hilarious, but I assume the raucous laughter stemmed from the misconception that his penis looked like seaweed-wrapped rice.

6 After all, we invented the term ‘selfie’. You’re welcome, world!

7 The —z/za ending seems to be imported from the UK, although it’s far less widely used here. From an anthropological standpoint, the primary difference is not necessarily the rules surrounding Australian nicknames, but the frequency with which they are used. As the linguist Chi Luu notes, Australians (and our Kiwi neighbours), use nicknames ‘so much more, and in much wider social and speech contexts’ than other native English speakers. That said, there are some cultural differences in nicknaming patterns. For example, Andrew is more commonly shortened to ‘Andy’ in the UK than Australia (which drives my husband nuts), and Michael is much more commonly shortened to ‘Mick’ in Australia than ‘Mike’, which has American connotations.

8 For example, my brother is frequently called ‘Belly’, but my sister and I never are. However, everyone in my husband’s family is nicknamed ‘Hammy’, including his two sisters. When I have been out in public with his family and someone calls out ‘Hammy!’, literally every single Ham turns around to see if they are being addressed.

9 Notably, such nicknames have the effect of downplaying ethnic differences, thereby reflecting the cultural value Australians place on egalitarianism and its emphasis on erasing artificial forms of distinction. The Australian anthropologist Bruce Kapferer (he of the ‘Kappy’ nickname) has written extensively about this topic in his book Legends of People, Myths of State: Violence, Intolerance and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia.

10 Growing up, I knew one red-headed Bluey. A mechanic, I have no idea what his actual name was – even his name badge was labeled ‘Blue’! There are two theories on the origins of the name: one is that red is the opposite of blue; another is that in Australia, fights are often called ‘blues’, and redheads are assumed to be fiery tempered.

11 If you’re interested in the Australian system of shouting drinks, I have a chapter devoted to this topic in Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour.

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