Why do we give nicknames and what does yours say about you?

The habit of giving nicknames has been around a long time and can say a lot about the recipient — or not. Dave Kenny does some research

President George Dubya Bush enjoyed doling out nicknames to his political team

Back in the 1990s I was introduced to a man in a pub whose name I now forget. He was a bit scary-looking.

“Whatever you do, don’t call him by his nickname,” a colleague advised me.

“What’s his nickname?”

“Basin of Blood.”

I called him ‘sir’.

A nickname can say a lot about a person. If he had been called ‘Bunny’, I wouldn’t have felt the urge to hide in the loo.

Recently, our best-known nickname, Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher, exited the Euro Parliament stage. Pat’s moniker hasn’t hindered him during a long and illustrious career. ‘The Cope’ is a strong nickname as it suggests ‘capability’ (Pat can Cope with anything). It’s actually derived from a local Co-op he is associated with.

Bono was born with the nice, normal name Paul Hewson and was originally named “Bonavox of McConnell Street” after the Bonavox hearing aid supply store (a derivative of Bono Vox, latin for “good voice”).

Nicknames have been around as long as people have been talking. !

According to a study by Bellevue University, Nebraska, men give nicknames as a way of being affectionate without compromising masculinity.

“It’s a man’s interpretation of what being friendly is like,” says Prof Cleveland Kent Evans.

‘Friendly’ President George Dubya Bush enjoyed doling out nicknames. Dick Cheney was ‘Big Time’ while Karl Rove was ‘Boy Genius’. The nicknames probably say more about Dubya than their recipients.

Monikers can give someone credibility. Abraham Lincoln was known as ‘Honest Abe’, Garret FitzGerald as ‘Garret The Good’, while Michael Collins was called ’The Big Fellow’ — a nickname still reserved solely for him.

Nicknames can also terrify. Al Capone was ‘Scarface’ and mobster Benny Siegel was called ‘Bugsy’ — the gangster slang for ‘going mental’. Bugsy detested his nickname and spilled blood when it was used.

Nicknames can be barf-inducing too, for example the ‘couple nickname’, where both names are joined to create one entity. The original was Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (‘Bennifer’). We now have ‘Brangelina’ and ‘Kimye’.

Some nicknames are so widely recognised that many believe they are the person’s actual name. Stalin was Christened Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. ‘Stalin’ means ‘steel’. Edson Arantes do Nascimento is better known as ‘Pele’. His moniker came about due to his mispronunciation of the name of his favourite player, Bilé.

Che Guevara’s name was Ernesto — Che translates as ‘hey’.

Sport is awash with monikers. David Beckham is known as ‘Golden Balls’, which is something to do with Christmas tree decorations (possibly). In GAA we’ve had ‘The Bomber’ Liston and Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper. His nickname comes from the popular red-haired 1990s Goochie Coo Doll.

GAA names, like Gooch’s, are generally inventive (Colm’s team-mate Kieran Donaghy is called ‘Star’). Soccer heads are less cerebral and like to lengthen names (‘Kean-o’, ‘Duff-er’ etc), with the exception of Keith Wood who was known as ‘The Raging Potato’.

In the music industry, nicknames are often used for marketing purposes. The most famous example is The Spice Girls (Ginger, Sporty, Baby, Posh). Rappers also ‘self-bestow’ to aggrandise themselves: Grandmaster Flash, ‘LL Cool J’ (Ladies Love Cool James).

If anyone introduces themselves to you as “They call me [insert nickname]“, ask them who “they” are. That should shut them up. Another crime is to insert ‘the’ before an abbreviation of your name. This is fine if you’re David ‘The Hoff’ Hasselhof, or ‘The Fonz’ (Fonzarelli), but not if you’re called Noel Kennedy (“They call me ‘The Neddy’”. Yes, they certainly do, you donkey).

So why do we call each other by nicknames? “As humans we are programmed to respond to affection and kindness — just like the family pet,” says psychotherapist and counsellor, Sinead Lynch (www.silverlinings.ie). “One way to connect with someone is to create a ‘pet’ or nickname for them. A name that says ‘I know this person’.

“Nicknames give us a chance to lighten the mood and show people that we are up for a laugh. Imagine the fun in hospitals if we called our surgeons ‘McDreamy’ or our IT guys ‘McLovin’.

“Have you ever noticed that some couples refer to each as ‘babe, baby, darling’? It’s a term of endearment that signifies love. These affectionate nicknames are seldom used in arguments because a more serious emotion is being conveyed... one that often means ‘you’re in trouble’, for example, ‘Daviiiiid’. Or even worse ‘David Kenny!’ The use of our whole name usually means business.

“Nicknames are often used to signify belonging — to show you’re one of the group.. According to the Native Indians, names were given based on how a person was seen and judged by others. Similarly, in Biblical times a change of name usually represented a change in spiritual status. Likewise, it was the king who named the knight, illustrating rank.”

In terms of rank, having a nickname could make you rich. In 2011, LinkedIn discovered a correlation between short names and success when it analysed the world’s top CEO names. The most popular ones were Pete, Jack, and Fred. So get a nickname. Changing your name from Robert to Bob could make you a few bob.



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