nicknames and shortened names

I’m done with nicknames. Actually, when I obtain my doctorate, I will not allow people to call me Shaq anymore, either.

— Shaquille O’Neal


I hate being called ‘Kel’. My name is Kellie and I really resent it being shortened. There are only three people who are allowed to call me Kel on a regular basis:

♦ my grandmother — because she just does, always has, and I’m ok with that; she means more to me than anyone else in my life

♦ my (acting) deputy — I don’t know why, but it just sounds right when it comes from her

♦ one of my colleagues — she has called me Kel from the first moment I met her. Never … never … has she called me Kellie. The funny thing is, she has also never realised this. Recently, someone told her I didn’t like being called Kel. She came to me, saying, ‘I don’t always call you Kel, do I?’ I had to break it to her that, yes, she always does. I told her it was okay, but she promised to change. Five minutes later, as I was walking out the door, she waved and said, ‘See you later, Kel.’ She’ll never change, and that’s fine. As with my deputy, it just sounds right coming from her.

If you are not one of these three privileged souls, you may be excused for the odd slip up, but I really would rather you didn’t continue. Thank you in advance.


Unfortunately, for a person such as myself who does not like, or indulge in, the shortening of people’s names — it is such a common practice in Australia.

There are three favoured ways of doing this in my country (and in some other English speaking countries):

♦ taking one syllable, often the first (but not always) from said person’s name: Peter – Pete; Alison – Al; Dianne – Di; Debbie – Deb; Ashlea – Ash; Janine – Neen; Elizabeth – Liz; Angela – Ang; Fiona – Fi; and so on forever

♦ adding ‘y’ (or variations) to the name or the shortened, one syllable version of the name (both first names and surnames): Peter – Petey (my father hated that, which meant we used it to stir him up); Wallace – Wally; Alison – Aly; Sandra – Sandy; Susan – Susy; Jones – Jonesy; Ferguson – Fergie; Smith – Smithy; and so on forever

♦ adding ‘o’ (or variations) to the name or the shortened, one syllable version of the name (first and surnames): John – Jonno; Robert or Robinson – Robbo; Richard(s) – Richo; and there are many more, but I just had a brain freeze.

Disliking the shortening of my own name, I also tend not to do it to other people. There is one exception though, and this occurs when the person has introduced themself to me by their shortened name; then I tend to use it.

However, people I have known for a long time and my own family members get called by their full name, even if everyone else uses a shortened version:

♦ A friend I have known since Year 4 gets called ‘Annie’ by everyone who knows her, including her own family. I always have, and always will, call her Anne Maree. (Except when I am using her nickname, which I won’t write here because she would kill me.)

♦ My daughter’s name is Ashlea, but most people outside of the family call her ‘Ash’. I hate this. She has never been introduced as ‘Ash’ but it’s one of those names people automatically shorten, whether they have permission or not. This was an oversight on my part when I came up with her name. However, she told me she doesn’t mind being called Ash, so I just have to suck it up.

As far as I’m concerned, however, the shortened version of people’s names are not nicknames. (They are lazy versions of the person’s name.) In my mind, nicknames have a meaning, not always pleasant, relevant to the person’s actions, personality or appearance.

A quote from Thomas Chandler Haliburton:

Nicknames stick to people, and the most ridiculous are the most adhesive.

This is so true!

Australians are particularly skilled in the art of the nickname. Google it, and you will get zillions of ideas.

Some nicknames are clever (and sometimes confusing), as in ‘Bluey’ for a redhead or ‘Stretch’ for a short person.

Some are blatantly obvious: ‘Red’ or ‘Carrot Top’ for a redhead; ‘Blondie’ for a blonde; ‘Shorty’ for a short person; ‘Cookie’ for a chef; and ‘Chalkie’ for a teacher (less relevant now as very few schools use chalkboards any more, sadly).

Some border on being rude and derogatory; woe betide if you are bald because you may get referred to as ‘Chromedome’ or, worse still, ‘Mudguard’ (shiny on top and full of crap underneath).

My grandmother, on my father’s side, was the master of the nickname. By my father’s description: one of my uncles was nicknamed ‘Bulldozer’ because of his sleeping habits; another uncle was ‘Two Hair’. The ‘two hair’ story is the best (as told to me by my father); going through puberty, one morning my uncle must have been inspecting his ‘pubic hair situation’ down below and called out, with great excitement, ‘Mum, mum, I have two hairs.’ The rest is history.

In her decline into dementia, my grandmother’s true feelings would come out much more often; I was witness to two such occasions (although my father assures me there were many more). One day, while serving lunch to the family, my grandmother was the recipient of a fair amount of hassling from my grandfather about the speed at which he was getting his food. My grandfather was deaf, but could lip-read, so after my grandmother placed his plate in front of him, she slipped behind his chair and said, loud enough for those closest to hear, ‘Shut your trap, pus-nuts.’ I was about 12 at the time and horrified! Dad assured me it was normal for her to call him this.

The second occasion was several years later when my grandmother was resident in a nursing home. There was a lady she didn’t particularly like and one day I watched my grandmother walk past her as she was complaining about something to one of the carers, ‘Your milk has obviously dried up, cranky-tits,’ she said in a voice louder than it should have been. Again, apparently this was not the first time she had used this ‘nickname’.

Myself, I am not totally opposed to using nicknames. My own children have them:

♦ My daughter is Fluff and has been since she was two (to the current day). Why? When she was little she would float around from person to person in a group, interested in what they were doing and wanting to engage them in conversation. She reminded me of a piece of kapok or one of those dandelion heads in a breeze, just moving innocently (and slightly annoyingly) from place to place.

♦ My son is Spud. Why? You wouldn’t know it to look at him now, but when he was a baby he was incredibly chunky. His legs and arms were quite short and he just looked dimply and potato-like. So Spud it was. It was several years later that I found out one of my grandfather’s brothers was also nicknamed Spud. Pure coincidence or a semi-conscious awareness? I have no idea.

These nicknames have stuck, but the three of us are the only people who use them. Far from being annoyed by the nicknames, both of the kids frequently use these names in various online ways, and when talking to or texting each other.

I have come to accept that name-shortening and nicknames are part of our life. It is not particularly nice when they are used in a derogatory way, or to cause someone hurt or grief; but sadly they are here to stay. It is also a bit of a pain when people insist on using them, even if you’d rather they didn’t; again, here to stay.

Finally though, because I have to stop somewhere (I could go on forever on this topic), a quote from Stephen Hawking — because it’s relevant, because I like it and because I think it sums up the (acceptable and clever) use of nicknames nicely:

I was never top of the class at school, but my classmates must have seen potential in me, because my nickname was ‘Einstein’.




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