"Of all eloquence a nickname is the most concise; of all arguments the most unanswerable." - Wacky Bill
October 31, 2010 9:52 PM   Subscribe

Under what circumstances can you assign someone an affectionate nickname?

For the purposes of the questions below, I'm interested in
(1) nicknames that are abbreviations of the person's real name ("J." for "Jebediah"; "Bec" for "Rebbeca") and
(2) nicknames that refer to the person's real characteristics ("Red" for the redhead),

rather than
(x3) abstract nicknames that emerge naturally from shared experiences ("Rev" for the guy who got you into a club by pretending to be a priest) or
(x4) nicknames that inherently go along with the person's given name ("Joe" for "Joseph") or
(x5) nicknames based on characteristics that it might be offensive to invoke ("Tiny" for the fat guy).


- How close do you have to be to someone, before you can assign them a nickname without its being weird?

- Are the rules different for inter-gender nicknaming? For instance, is it necessarily likely to come across as flirtatious?

- Am I right that there's a limited window in which you can introduce a nickname -- like, you can't call Jebediah "J." the very first time you meet him, but it would be affected and weird if you suddenly started calling him "J." after calling him "Jebediah" for years?

- How do you deal with oversteps -- if someone miscalculates and starts calling you by a nickname that your relationship isn't close enough to warrant, do you ask him to stop or do you just quietly resent it?

- If you're comfortable with one person calling you by a particular nickname, is this necessarily a license for mutual friends to start using it, too?

- Are some names long enough that it's more acceptable to abbreviate them even without as close a relationship? Like, Zebulon Junior knows he's going to be called "Z.J." even by some acquaintances, while Todd sees no good reason that anyone but his buddies should call him "T."?

- If you meet a certain threshold level of insouciant coolness and charm (a threshold, I might add, that I cannot claim to clear), is it somehow more tolerated that you'll nickname everyone around you?

- Have you ever felt closer to someone because they assigned you a nickname?

- In general, what factors make you okay with nicknames people assign to you?
posted by foursentences to Human Relations (41 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't call people by nicknames unless I hear their friends doing it. I usually ask if they care/prefer to be called something else if it's more than a casual encounter.

I don't think it's really ever right to just assign. If anything, you could ask, "hey, can I call you J?"

This stems from a dislike of having a name that's very different, but only two syllables, that for some reason people insist in making up stupid nicknames for.

I like the one letter thing OK though.

I've never felt closer to someone from having a nickname. I've felt more important or less important though.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:02 PM on October 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


- How close do you have to be to someone, before you can assign them a nickname without its being weird?

Helpfully: It Depends.

You specifically exclude nicknames that come from a significant shared experience, but the truth is that, even for generic type nicknames, having shared a dramatic experience together makes it easier to accept a nickname from someone. If I have red hair and, after I fast talk us in to an exclusive club, you say "slick, Red," thus calling me "Red" for the first time, it will feel natural and I'll accept it from you in the future even if it's the first time we've actually hung out together.

- Are the rules different for inter-gender nicknaming? For instance, is it necessarily likely to come across as flirtatious?

Yes, it comes across as flirtatious, almost without exception. Even if you're calling someone by an established nickname that most of their same-gender friends use.

- Am I right that there's a limited window in which you can introduce a nickname -- like, you can't call Jebediah "J." the very first time you meet him, but it would be affected and weird if you suddenly started calling him "J." after calling him "Jebediah" for years?

- How do you deal with oversteps -- if someone miscalculates and starts calling you by a nickname that your relationship isn't close enough to warrant, do you ask him to stop or do you just quietly resent it?

- If you're comfortable with one person calling you by a particular nickname, is this necessarily a license for mutual friends to start using it, too?

No, but yes. If person A regularly calls me by a nickname in the presence of a bunch of other people, that doesn't mean that I want other people calling me by that name. But it also means that I sort of have to expect that they will unless I want to be an exlusionary dick about it. Doesn't mean I have to like it.

- Are some names long enough that it's more acceptable to abbreviate them even without as close a relationship? Like, Zebulon Junior knows he's going to be called "Z.J." even by some acquaintances, while Todd sees no good reason that anyone but his buddies should call him "T."?

I don't really see how this matters. But then, I have a very short name.

- If you meet a certain threshold level of insouciant coolness and charm (a threshold, I might add, that I cannot claim to clear), is it somehow more tolerated that you'll nickname everyone around you?

Yes. But far more people THINK they are charming and then do this in a dickish way than actually are charming and do it in a charming way.

- Have you ever felt closer to someone because they assigned you a nickname?

Yes, but only if I feel close to them already. If someone I like nicknames me, it strengthens the bond. If someone I'm lukewarm to nicknames me, it cools me off on them.

- In general, what factors make you okay with nicknames people assign to you?

Basically, if I like the person and if they say the nickname in a way that makes it sound like they're building me up with it rather than tearing me down. Delivery is everything and tone of voice almost always carries more than you want it to.
posted by 256 at 10:04 PM on October 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


My name is Stacey. I don't like being called Stace (perhaps because I'm more used to being called Malibu, or perhaps because my mother/grandparents hated it and berated anyone who called me Stace in my childhood).

I've never been called S. That's just weird.

I'm also a redhead. Anyone who calls me Red is in mortal danger. (And being Australian, anyone who calls me Blue had better duck really quickly too.)
posted by malibustacey9999 at 10:09 PM on October 31, 2010


It doesn't have to be that complicated. Most people will correct you right off the bat if you start calling them a nickname they're unfond of, and chances are they've heard it often enough that you'll get a many-speech saying as much and that's it.
posted by biochemist at 10:15 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I also think a lot of it depends whether the person in question has a name that is commonly nicknamed or not. I am potentially OK with almost any non-offensive/insulting nickname, because there are so few traditionally associated with my name. It's sort of a novelty. But people I know with commonly nicknamed names (not unlike Stacey up there) - DON'T YOU FUCKING DARE!
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 PM on October 31, 2010


- If you meet a certain threshold level of insouciant coolness and charm (a threshold, I might add, that I cannot claim to clear), is it somehow more tolerated that you'll nickname everyone around you?

Seemed to work for George W. Bush.
posted by John Cohen at 10:20 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


That should've said a mini-speech... wow.
posted by biochemist at 10:25 PM on October 31, 2010


There really aren't any hard-and-fast rules or even strong guidelines for this. Some people assign nicknames to almost everyone they know, some people object to all nicknames regardless of who gives them.

"Have you ever felt closer to someone because they assigned you a nickname?"

For the longest time, my boss's toddler-aged daughter kept forgetting who I was and thus she would act surprised and fearful whenever she visited her dad at work and saw me sitting in my office. She also couldn't master pronouncing my name, no matter how many times her father and mother tried to coach her to say hello, goodbye, or thank you to me. But she knew and liked my coworker, George, and apparently asked her father every morning, "Papa go to work and see George?"

Well, a few months ago, apparently this became, "Papa go to work, see George and Georgealynn?" Close enough. :) So now when my boss first comes in, he greets us with, "Good morning, George. Good morning, Georgealynn." And I feel more included/acknowledged as part of the team than I did before.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:28 PM on October 31, 2010 [6 favorites]


What I tend to do is ask people what they prefer to be called. There are several nicknames based on my name alone that people can choose, and I hate nearly all of them. The only nickname based on my name that I like is Chris. And a lot of people won't go for that one unless I mention it, since they think of it as masculine.

You never know what might irk someone, so it's best to ask them what they like and be on the safe side.

Giving someone of the opposite sex a nickname doesn't always come off as flirtatious. It really depends on the context.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:32 PM on October 31, 2010


I think the likelihood that an arbitrarily-chosen nickname will stick and be welcomed is very low.

I always considered nicknaming to be an organic process. Parents give babies nicknames because they coo and shorten to get something that sounds cute and precious just like their little darling. Kids give their parents, friends, and family (possibly also themselves) nicknames because they have troubles producing the proper lexemes to say the names properly. Sometimes those little-kid nicknames persist and spread because other family members and friends find them endearing and pleasant.

In offices and school situations nicknames that seem to stick pop up through random chance or because the person themselves decides to offer forward a nickname to call them. Arbitrarily decided nicknames from an outside party generally don't stick well because nicknames require recognition, and one person is generally insufficient. If someone called me "C" I wouldn't get what was going on because I am not used to being called "C".

The only outsider-type (not family) people who have ever really succeeded at calling me a nickname are gray-haired men in their sixties and seventies, and that is only because I tolerate it because our interactions are relatively minimal.
posted by that girl at 10:38 PM on October 31, 2010


It doesn't have to be that complicated. Most people will correct you right off the bat if you start calling them a nickname they're unfond of, and chances are they've heard it often enough that you'll get a many-speech saying as much and that's it.

This isn't true. Some people are just not forward enough to correct someone. One of my ex's named Christopher hated to be called Chris. He never, ever corrected anyone. I think the best protocol would be to ask someone what they prefer to be called.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 10:39 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I give people nicknames quite a bit, because it's a fun way to bond with someone. The nickname can come up at any time, for any reason, in my mind.

I like getting a nickname if it's coming from someone with good intentions. Some weird, slimy people use nicknames as a shorthanded way of feigning familiarity. That's weird. I tend not to trust people who give me nicknames within a short period of meeting me...probably because it seems like they're trying to push the relationship along faster than it would naturally develop. That said, if I meet someone and get along with them and they give me a nickname out of nowhere I will most likely find it charming.

My general rules on nicknames:
- I will state at some point, "I'm going to call you [nickname] now." If they express displeasure or seem to hate it, I never use it again. If they ask me to stop using it at any point, I never use it again. Unless they are the type of person for whom a little ball busting is in order. Use your best judgment. No one wants to be the "nickname guy".

Some people don't like nicknames that much - there's some nuance in it. For example, my first name is one that has what I consider the worst shortened nickname - and the only people who ever use it repeatedly are assholes (a lot of my high school teachers fit into that category, no surprise). Nicknames like that are dumb - not everyone has a monosyllabic name, and that's ok. Likewise if someone's given a nickname for it being too "ethnic/hard to pronounce/etc", that's gross.

I think nicknames are best used coming out of a place of fondness and in order to share something unique to your relationship with one person or within a group of people. As with most things, there aren't hard and fast rules so long as you mean well and don't be an asshole about it.
posted by SassHat at 10:40 PM on October 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


- In general, what factors make you okay with nicknames people assign to you?

Never? People have tried, but they always get corrected. It doesn't matter how long I've known them, how close, how whatever they are to me I never liked nicknames. Some of us are like that. Partly because it shows a familiarity that usually doesn't exist between the two of us and, probably because I already get more than my fair share since my last name is used as a slang word too. If I had a nickel ...

And being Australian, anyone who calls me Blue had better duck really quickly too.

I knew a Shelia who'd warn the Australians she met not to go there.
posted by squeak at 10:40 PM on October 31, 2010


- How close do you have to be to someone, before you can assign them a nickname without its being weird?

It's hard to quantify closeness, but I think certainly it belongs more in the realm of friends than mere acquaintances. (With some exceptions.) But this is probably something more gauged by feel.

- Are the rules different for inter-gender nicknaming? For instance, is it necessarily likely to come across as flirtatious?

I think this depends on the nickname. I wouldn't give my female platonic friends sexy nicknames; that just doesn't seem appropriate. (And their husbands/boyfriends may not like it!) But I often call them by their initials, First/Middle or First/Last. It just seemed to evolve naturally, as opposed to a conscious decision. I've never considered it flirtatious, nor have they or their SOs taken it that way to my knowledge.

- Am I right that there's a limited window in which you can introduce a nickname -- like, you can't call Jebediah "J." the very first time you meet him, but it would be affected and weird if you suddenly started calling him "J." after calling him "Jebediah" for years?

Certainly there can be a "too early" but I'm not sure if there's a "too late." For example a circumstance might arise where you notice some new characteristic about someone you've known for a long time.

Have you ever felt closer to someone because they assigned you a nickname?

My closest friends seem to naturally call me by my first initial at times ("D") both in writing and in person, but not all the time. I notice that I do like it when they do that, not because I necessarily feel closer, but it reaffirms the closeness we already have.
posted by The Deej at 10:58 PM on October 31, 2010


How close do you have to be to someone, before you can assign them a nickname without its being weird?

Whenever you're close enough to them to ask 'do you mind if I call you ...". Which could be at any and all points of a relationship really, depending on the people involved. But unilaterally assigning the nickname? Never.

No one anywhere, ever, no matter how cool they are, gets away with calling me any kind of nickname. I'm not all offended when someone asks (I say no), but I do get snippy when they just try it on after I've shot them down. If you know me then this doesn't surprise you, and if it does surprise you then you really don't know me well enough to be trying it on in the first place.
posted by shelleycat at 10:59 PM on October 31, 2010


If someone calls you a nickname for a positive reason, and you don't like it, don't get all resentful; just take it as an opportunity to assign an equally annoying nickname right back. From the other person's perspective, they'll either think "yay we're bonding!" or "oh, that's a stupid nickname, he/she must think the nickname I chose is stupid, so I'll stop doing that."
posted by davejay at 11:08 PM on October 31, 2010


I have a sort of answer for:

- How do you deal with oversteps -- if someone miscalculates and starts calling you by a nickname that your relationship isn't close enough to warrant, do you ask him to stop or do you just quietly resent it?

- If you're comfortable with one person calling you by a particular nickname, is this necessarily a license for mutual friends to start using it, too?

- Have you ever felt closer to someone because they assigned you a nickname?


Anecdata: My name is Alexandra, but I always prefer to go by Alex. That being said, when I was much younger I was in a class with 3 other Alex's (since it's popular with both genders), so I went by "Ally" that year. I eventually reverted back to Alex but my family (Mom, dad, sis, one uncle) still calls me Ally. They're also the only people allowed to do that. I've had friends & acquaintances who've overheard my sister calling me that and tried to use it themselves. I always ask them not to and state that it's a thing reserved just for family. Usually people respect that, but I've found that people who don't respect that request (however trivial) are prone to not respect my requests in other areas, so I've begun to use it to weed out jerks. (On preview, along the lines of what shelleycat said) Can I call you 'shel?' ;)

That being said, it does make me feel warm and fuzzy when my family uses my nickname.

posted by girlalex at 11:09 PM on October 31, 2010


I don't like it when people start referring to me by a different name than they usually use.

My nicknames have actually grown in such a way that certain groups of people only know me by a certain name and I get weirded out when those lines get crossed.

I'm also a control freak.

When someone uses a different name than I'm accustomed to I'll usually say something kinda jokingly along the lines of, "oh hell no, did you just call me _____?" or "never call me that again... ever. never." or "that sounds weird when you say it..."
I don't get offended or angry... it's just awkward.
My extended family all know me by one name and when someone unrelated uses that name it's almost like they're trying to force themselves into my family.
On the other hand, if my cousin introduces me to their fiance using my extended family name then it's almost like, "welcome to the family".
During my drunk, slutty college years I picked up a nickname and only friends from college who know me as a slutty drunk use that name... and if my co-workers started calling me by that name I'd wonder if they had found my "artistic" photos... or if my video surfaced.

When someone tries to make up a nickname it's pretty much, "Huh? That's not my name..."

The only times I've embraced new nicknames are when they were from someone who I had recently met AND looked up to/admired... OR if it was someone who I had a thing for.
In these scenarios I've definitely felt closer to them... but, only because I wanted to feel closer to them.
posted by simplethings at 11:10 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm totally a civilian who lives and works in spheres just about as far away from the military as possible, but sometimes I'll arbitrarily assign people military ranks as a sort of nickname, i.e. "Captain X", "Commander Y", or "Field Marshal Z", with X, Y, and Z being their real last name. It was the product of imitating someone who insisted on using everyone's last name, and carrying that to absurdity.
posted by XMLicious at 11:11 PM on October 31, 2010


Does anybody else think that the OP's numbers 1 and 4x are conflicting?
posted by surewouldoutlaw at 11:20 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I mostly don't care on nicknames as long as they aren't of the "honey, baby, sweetie" variety. Mostly because (a) gag me, and (b) my mother calls me those things when she's telling me something I don't want to hear, so any time someone else says them I think they're trying to snow me. Personal nicknames based off your personality are a lot cuter than the generic schmoopypants crap anyway.

I also answer to pretty much any permutation of my first name, even the ones I'm not that fond of. I'm pretty laid back about those. People really love to shorten names anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:41 PM on October 31, 2010


If someone calls you a nickname for a positive reason, and you don't like it, don't get all resentful; just take it as an opportunity to assign an equally annoying nickname right back.

Or, you know, just say in a polite, neutral tone 'please don't call me that'. Straight forward, friendly communication works best for things as fraught as names.

I know lots of people who have all kinds of nicknames they are happy with and/or are totally open to being called whatever. But just flat out asking never causes problems or reduces the fun of the new name.
posted by shelleycat at 1:08 AM on November 1, 2010


Nicknames irritate me when they make no sense. Someone in my office insists on calling me by the first letter of my LAST name, which, wtf. It takes just as much effort to say "liz" as it does to say one letter. Even worse, that one letter is the first letter of the first name of two other people in my office, so no one ever knows who the hell she is talking to when she shouts it across the room. Hell, I'd be more likely to respond to her if she was like "OI BITCH" because at least that has logical basis in reality.

tl;dr nicknames need to make some kind of goddamn sense.
posted by elizardbits at 5:36 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


People love to nickname me. One of my supervisors calls me Sarah J. because my name is like that of the woman who is married to Matthew Broderick, and I don't like her, and I made the tactical error of letting him know that. Sigh. My MeFi username was something people just started calling me and I thought it was funny (I have a high degree of attachment to my "whole, entire" name, so getting all four parts in, albeit abbreviated, when people address me is nice.) Meanwhile, my mom's been trying to call me "Sare" for twenty years and it never works. She decided, after deliberately giving all of her kids "nickname proof" names, that she wanted to give me, in fifth grade at that point, a nickname. Yeah, no.

In some cases, at least, I don't think any pattern of rules can be detected.

(My boss is not flirting with me.)
posted by SMPA at 6:04 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm having a little trouble telling 1 and 4 apart too.

Anecdotally, I have a common English name that has a lot of associated diminutives; I like some but hate others. Like, say my name is Patricia (it's not); some people assume it's okay to call me Pat, and I usually have to interrupt them to correct them because they don't give me an easy out. And if they're like "aw, why not?" and I say something like "seriously, I hate being called Pat," they usually have a sister named Pat or something, and now both of us are mad.

If you assign me a nickname based on a fairly obvious characteristic, like my hair or my accent or my height, and you do not know much about me beyond those obvious characteristics, I am not going to cotton to that nickname. You are not the first to notice that, for example, I have freckles. You do not know who else has called me "Freckles;" possibly the school bully, possibly a scary guy trying to pick me up in a bar, possibly a harmless-but-annoying Friday's waiter.

Unless you know the person well enough to definitively know that they won't mind the nickname, or to know that they're comfortable telling you "hey, don't call me that," always ask first.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:15 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


There was a girl in one of my classes who seemed really cool and nice and smart. We hung out once or twice and I wasn't sure if she actually liked me much even though we seemed to get along pretty well. (Yeah, I had low self-esteem and had a tough time making friends.) Then one day she added "ey" to the end of my name. I took it as a very welcomed sign that I had made a friend. It's been ten years and she still calls me by that nickname and it still makes me happy.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I think nicknames can be an opportunity to show somebody you like them without having to say "I like you." But if you use a nickname for everybody, it's just a shtick.
posted by smirkyfodder at 6:55 AM on November 1, 2010


Please don't be that guy who gives everyone a nickname. It's completely annoying and wrecks the sense of genuine closeness that sometimes can come from having in-jokes and nicknames--if you call me, I don't know, Red, because we go back so far you remember the time I dyed my hair red and it was a total disaster and you helped me dye it back, that's cute; if you call me Blondie because we just met and I have blonde hair, that feels like you just can't be bothered to learn my name or get to know me as a person.

- How close do you have to be to someone, before you can assign them a nickname without its being weird?
Pretty much only my husband gets to make up nicknames for me. Anyone else has to call me by my real name or a nickname that came about organically--and even then, the only people I want calling me by nicknames are people I'm comfortable enough with that I can ask them to stop using a particular nickname without the conversation being awkward.

- Are the rules different for inter-gender nicknaming? For instance, is it necessarily likely to come across as flirtatious?
Any man who has ever arbitrarily tried to nickname me has at least seemed like he was flirting (albeit awkwardly).

- How do you deal with oversteps -- if someone miscalculates and starts calling you by a nickname that your relationship isn't close enough to warrant, do you ask him to stop or do you just quietly resent it?
I'm a reasonably assertive person, so I would ask you to stop, but there are a lot of people who will just quietly resent your use of a nickname.

- If you're comfortable with one person calling you by a particular nickname, is this necessarily a license for mutual friends to start using it, too?
Absolutely not.

- Are some names long enough that it's more acceptable to abbreviate them even without as close a relationship? Like, Zebulon Junior knows he's going to be called "Z.J." even by some acquaintances, while Todd sees no good reason that anyone but his buddies should call him "T."?
Only if the person introduces himself, "My name is Zebulon Junior, but I go by ZJ." Just because someone has a name people tend to shorten or change, doesn't mean you should feel free to re-name him.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:11 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the male dorms at my university in the early 90's, getting a nickname was a rite of passage. It didn't matter if you liked the nickname or not, once you got your nickname, you had to accept it. Nicknames arose organically usually after evenings of epic debauchery. If you pushed back on your nickname, it would only get worse. One dude was named "Pee-Pee" because he pissed his bed one night. Even under the threat of violence, everyone continued to call him "Pee-Pee". Eventually he got over himself for the greater good of the dorm.
posted by jasondigitized at 7:18 AM on November 1, 2010


A guy at work calls me Cheshire since I apparently smile a lot. He just started it randomly one day, when I didn't know him that well. He's a fairly cool person and the nickname, I think, helped me get over some awkwardness I, for some reason, feel around males (I'm female).
posted by DisreputableDog at 7:19 AM on November 1, 2010


I am generally nickname-friendly and seem to get them a lot. I don't even normally get irritated with Blondie or weird shortenings or elaborations of my name (the first syllable is the same as the first syllable of a lot of words, for some reason) or whatever

An ex pointed out to me once that another woman was clearly calling me Blondie as a put-down and HE got annoyed and said "her name is Pax." We pretty quickly realized that she liked the ex, so whatever, her trying td dismiss me made sense. But still, I didn't really care - much easier not to get worked up about it.

On the other hand, I don't like my full first name - e.g. say I'm called Jen but my name is Jennifer (it's not) - so there's that.

I don't think there are many hard and fast rules except that you should try to be the one that makes sure the nicknamed person is ok with it (e.g. don't count on a shy person being able to say they hate being called Jen-Jen).

I generally only use (either give or appropriate) nicknames with people I know well or who happen to have a very causal way about them or with those who introduce themselves that way (I'm thinking less of the Michael/Mike thing, which usually becomes clear and more of a co-worker named Rosemary that signs emails "Ro" and another who we call "Flick.")
posted by Pax at 8:03 AM on November 1, 2010


I'm not clear what the difference between 1 and 4 are -- Beck/Becks/Becka are standard shortenings of Rebecca, rather like Joe/Joseph.

If you are coworkers, it's irritating to be given nicknames. If you are friends (not just acquaintances), you can try -- as long as you are okay with being asked not to use even the most standard nickname. You can try to use a nickname that someone who is *less* of a close friend used, I suppose. But really, unless you're reasonably good friends, it's creepy to start nicknaming people, except maybe for the standard nicknames for the name. (But not the childish ones.)

(The only nickname I've ever rather liked is the one which is, not coincidentally, now my username here. Only one person has ever called me it.)

tl;dr: just ask if you want to use a nickname.
posted by jeather at 9:21 AM on November 1, 2010


I was kind of an awkward kid in junior high. I was ridiculously shy, and had a hard time making friends. One day I wore a sweatshirt with a foreign logo on it that I had gotten on vacation, and someone recognized it and started randomly calling me by that name. Somehow it just kind of stuck, and other people at school started using it too. It probably wasn't JUST about the nickname of course, but around that same time I started to get much more comfortable with myself, was more social, and started to make some really good friends. To this day I still get warm fuzzies when I think about that nickname, even though no one has called me that in many years. It definitely made me feel loved and included.

So now, when other people occasionally decide to give me a nickname, I tend to see it in that same light - as a sign of friendship and camaraderie - and it usually makes me happy. I do have one friend though whose nickname for me is slightly racy, and while I don't mind at all when she calls me that, I don't like when she uses it in front of other people who are not close friends. I told her that and she said she understood, but she still sometimes slips, which is moderately annoying.
posted by bobafet at 9:26 AM on November 1, 2010


My boss calls most of the staff by nicknames of her own choosing. Mine is a cutesy, rhymey version of my name. It's also something my mom calls me occasionally, although not in public. When my mom uses it, it feels close and cozy. When my boss calls me the same thing, it grates. Her use of nicknames feels like she's talking down, keeping us in our place. Too much of a power differential for it to feel close at all. However, she's also a very domineering woman, and so far I haven't had the courage to say anything to her. So be careful of the power dynamics - nicknames between friends is very different from nicknames in the workplace.
posted by dorey_oh at 9:47 AM on November 1, 2010


Where I'm from, people tend to have nicknames based on one of two things: (a) a specific event that involved them, or (b) a specific trait that they possess.

For example, my user name 'magstheaxe' comes from a specific event that occurred when I was in college, and involved an ax. My dad's nickname, 'Spotlight', came from round, light-colored scar he has on his forehead, from where he fell against a stove as a child. Both my grandmothers were names 'Mary', and they were married to brothers, so to differentiate them, one grandmother was nicknamed 'Mary Moss' and the other 'Mary Joe'--their first names combined with their husbands' names. One of my buddies, Eddie, is very tall with long legs, so he's sometimes called 'Longshanks' or 'Eddie Longshanks'. My uncle's nickname is 'Buddy', because even as a child he was friendly with everyone (his son is Li'l Buddy). I know several people nicknamed 'Tiny', all of whom are very large (and they have no problems with it, taking it in the same spirit that moved Robin Hood nicknamed his giant friend 'Little John'). I know two guys at work, on a certain sales team, who when together are referred to by the rest of the team as 'Abercrombie and Fitch' because of their fashion sense.


Nicknames--in English, at least--rarely have rhyme or reason to them. My uncle is known as Buddy to all who know him (except in church, where he's Rev. Kenneth); his son, on the other hand, is called Li'l Buddy by family and close friends only. I've never known why my cousin is called 'Poss', I think I was in my early teens when I learned his real name was Byron.



- How close do you have to be to someone, before you can assign them a nickname without its being weird?

You don't have to close at all to assign a nickname. Uncle Buddy was given his nickname by a total stranger, who said "Why, he's just everybody's buddy, ain't he?" My grandmothers' nicknames were specifically for public consumption--the family, at least, didn't need special rules to tell them apart.


- Are the rules different for inter-gender nicknaming? For instance, is it necessarily likely to come across as flirtatious?

I can see where it could come across as flirtatious, but I wouldn't say it's necessarily so. In my experience, gender hasn't really mattered in nicknaming people.

- Am I right that there's a limited window in which you can introduce a nickname -- like, you can't call Jebediah "J." the very first time you meet him, but it would be affected and weird if you suddenly started calling him "J." after calling him "Jebediah" for years?

From my experience, someone can earn a nickname at any time.


- How do you deal with oversteps -- if someone miscalculates and starts calling you by a nickname that your relationship isn't close enough to warrant, do you ask him to stop or do you just quietly resent it?


I know my father didn't like being called 'Spotlight' by the other boys in his neighborhood, and requests to stop using it were met with derision. So, he resorted to fisticuffs, which put an end to it. The others may have called him 'Spotlight' among themselves, but they never called Daddy that to his face again.

- If you're comfortable with one person calling you by a particular nickname, is this necessarily a license for mutual friends to start using it, too?

I can only speak for myself: I have no problem with it. Heck, I use my nickname in my podcast!


- Are some names long enough that it's more acceptable to abbreviate them even without as close a relationship?

I would think so. Take the name Elizabeth, for example. You can get more abbreviations out of Elizabeth that just about any other name in English: Lit, Littie, Liz, Lizzie, Liza, Eliza, Beth, Bette, Bets, Betty, Bess, Bessie, etc. I haven't met a woman named Elizabeth yet who wasn't being called Liz or Beth (at the very least) within minutes of being introduced. There's other examples: Michael called for Mike, Kenneth calls for Ken, etc. There's some names that just cry out to be abbreviated.


- If you meet a certain threshold level of insouciant coolness and charm (a threshold, I might add, that I cannot claim to clear), is it somehow more tolerated that you'll nickname everyone around you?

I doubt it. Some people just don't like being nicknamed. I've got a supervisor at work that specifically requests that people call him Michael, never Mike.


- Have you ever felt closer to someone because they assigned you a nickname?

I can only speak for myself: I haven't spoken to the guy who nicknamed me 'mags' since college. So I would say, not necessarily.


- In general, what factors make you okay with nicknames people assign to you?

Honestly? I come from a nickname-rich culture, at least compared to some folks. Nicknames are sort of considered inevitable, and you just sort of roll with them when they happen. One rarely thinks in terms of them being assigned--they just sort of arise naturally, and reflect something about you that someone managed to capture in a nickname.
posted by magstheaxe at 10:43 AM on November 1, 2010


My name is pretty much unnicknameable, (except for goofy ones my dad uses), so I don't have much experience with them. The few times one of my close friends has tried to make one up by messing with the first syllable of my name, it does make me feel loved and included, but if a total stranger, a coworker, or a classmate had done that, it would have annoyed me. I would have started with a displeased expression, then gone on to say something if it was obvious they wouldn't drop it. One of the security guards at work used to have a nickname for me (twenty-forty-five, due to something weird that had happened to my badge), and I didn't mind that, either. I would rather have a neutral nickname than no name at all (I do not expect the security guards to know thousands of people's names).

I'm not sure I've heard of many situations where a nickname based on physical description has gone over well, other than the "Tiny" cases. Usually the nickname picks out some part of someone's physique that is not average, and as it's not "the norm," they have probably already been through periods of self-consciousness about it. I would avoid those altogether.

I also have noticed that people, in general, don't like you shortening their names until they tell you it's okay (Mike/Michael, Liz/Elizabeth). If there's a common nickname that I hear a couple of other people using for a person, I ask, i.e. "Do you prefer 'Dave' or 'David?'" I've noticed a lot of people get annoyed at people shortening their names "for" them, but not enough to say something to every single person and I don't want to add to that annoyance.

The coolness factor of the person doesn't matter. There is no attitude that makes up for bonding and shared experiences.
posted by wending my way at 12:26 PM on November 1, 2010


Perhaps it's the Australian compulsion to shorten words but everyone I know, outside work, has one or more nicknames they go by. I wouldn't assume and start making ones up by myself until I've known someone for a while but it's much rarer for me to call someone by their actual name than a nickname. If people call me Nelly, which is the most common abbrevation for my name and one I hate, I'll just mention that I prefer Rel - no big deal. I'm pretty short so have always, always been called Shorty or Midget or Munchkin or whatever. It doesn't bother me - I know I'm short. Also, if you kick up a fuss about a nickname you can pretty much guarantee that you'll be stuck with it for good. A redheaded friend hates being called Ranger (short for orangutan) and Fanta Pants but that is part of the fun. We call him Fanta, he has a tantrum, we laugh at him. He always gets us back. That is a huge part of the culture here - to be respected you must be about to both take it and dish it it.
posted by Wantok at 2:10 PM on November 1, 2010


I think one can have a personality that pulls it off more successfully than others. I'm not really a permanent nickname user, but I get in silly moods where I just call people something other than their name—anything other than their name—just for the hell of it. People seem to enjoy it, but the key is I'm not really naming them that for all time, just for the moment. One day I called everyone T-pain. They called me T-pain. We were all T-pain.

You kind of have to be careful about people in grumpy moods with that strategy, though. Or, depending on how well you know them, you may want to step it up just to be annoying when they're in a grumpy mood. Heh. You kind of also have to watch out for people who are trying not to be dicks, but don't really like it, and not be that guy, who cracks himself up but drives everyone else nuts. (Which is true for would-be permanent nickname using, too.)

Are you asking because you want to name someone something, or because someones done that to you and you don't like it? The "look of disapproval" the first time they call you something you don't like usually works.

Which would make me laugh even more when I got to say, "all right, T-Pain, T-Pain, T-Pain, foursentences, and T-Pain: You're all on the 737 project today."
posted by ctmf at 8:56 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rereading, I use people's names remixed all the time. I would NEVER go with someone's physical characteristics unless that person explicitly said something like "you can call me Red, most everyone's called me that for years" or something like that. No matter how well I thought I knew them. That's a minefield.
posted by ctmf at 9:00 PM on November 1, 2010


My first name is Jasmine, but since high school men have called me Jazz (usually spelled Jas) instead. Teachers, fellow students, coworkers, bosses, etc. It is almost always men. My theory about it is that Jasmine is a very feminine name and sort of porny/strippery and Jazz is more jaunty and less sensual or sexual. Using the nickname is actually a way to decrease intimacy by stepping away from the more romantic "Jasmine."

It almost always happens spontaneously, and typically after I've known the man for a little while. Sometimes they ask for permission, sometimes not. It doesn't bother me, but I don't especially encourage it either. I've come to see it as a coded message of "I like you but I'm not trying to get in your pants."

It has been a long while since I've been in the dating scene, but IIRC men who want to pursue me romantically do not use Jas.
posted by jeoc at 11:47 AM on November 2, 2010


I LOVE NICKNAMES and I have many opinions on this topic!

The first rule of what to call people is that you should call them by the name they introduce themselves as. I prefer to go by firstname-middlename, and I always introduce myself that way, and inevitably people immediately call me by my firstname alone. Shrug.

Calling someone by a nickname implies closeness or fondness.

I think I have broken all of the rules you laid out in your post. I have a close friend from early childhood who I called "Lisa" up until we were in our twenties, and then I started calling her Li (Lee).

I have nicknamed people I've met on the first meeting. Often that's flirtatious, but it isn't necessarily.

if someone miscalculates and starts calling you by a nickname that your relationship isn't close enough to warrant, do you ask him to stop or do you just quietly resent it?

It is always appropriate to ask someone to call you by a name you prefer.

If you're comfortable with one person calling you by a particular nickname, is this necessarily a license for mutual friends to start using it, too?

Yes, generally, unless someone you are romantically involved with or an immediate family member has a pet name for you that is for them alone. I love when my father calls me Pumpkin. I would find it extremely strange if anyone else tried to. But I don't think pet names fall into the type of nicknames you would prefer to discuss. (My ex-girlfriend's pet name for me was "homeslice." I probably should have broken up with her over it. Worst pet name ever! But I liked it because I loved her and because I love nicknames and pet names.)

If you meet a certain threshold level of insouciant coolness and charm (a threshold, I might add, that I cannot claim to clear), is it somehow more tolerated that you'll nickname everyone around you?

George W. Bush did it. And I do it. We have nothing else in common. I don't think this quality is a factor of being "cool" but rather an ability to develop a connection with someone very quickly. I can't think of an occasion that I thought a nickname would go over well with somebody and it didn't. If I'm not clicking with someone I am not about to play around with their name. You feel it out, it just sort of happens. It's affectionate.

Have you ever felt closer to someone because they assigned you a nickname?

Absolutely!

The name I go by most in life is my roller derby name. And most of my friends call me nicknames based around that name. And before roller derby I went by different nicknames based on my given name at different phases of my life. One nickname in summer camp, one nickname in high school, one nickname in college, initials post-college, etc. I can instantly tell you how someone knows me based on what they call me.

(oh, and in roller derby, where everyone has a derby-identity-name, sometimes you assert your closeness to somebody by calling them by their government name, as it's known. I've noticed I've started doing this with one very close friend unconsciously. My roommate's girlfriend started doing it with me, and I corrected her for a while and then decided I liked it, because we are so close and fond of each other; she may call me by my given name which I otherwise almost never hear.)

I have pet names for each of my siblings. We have family-nicknames. My 2 roommates and my roommate's girlfriend collectively have a nickname. Our apartment has a nickname. Our pets have nicknames. Our practice space has a nickname. My car has a nickname.

Things that are important to me have nicknames. And people who love me have nicknames or pet names for me.

If I went through an entire day and was not called by a nickname I would probably feel very lonely.
posted by palegirl at 12:39 AM on November 3, 2010


This has been terrific -- thanks to all who answered. To clarify, I have no intention of becoming a nickname junky; there are two people I had thought of nicknaming, and I realized I wanted to understand the custom better.

I should have been clearer -- the difference I intended between 1 and 4 was that
1 = non-standard abbreviation that the nicknamer makes up ("Ri" for "Maria")
whereas
4 = commonly-recognized alternative form of the name, which Google probably parses as equivalent ("Tim" for "Timothy").


Here's the list of broad takeaways I'm abstracting from your answers, all of which ring true to me:

- Nicknames, like diamonds, are valuable when they're discovered or earned, but not when they're engineered or mass-produced. Introduce a nickname as an AFFIRMATION of mutually-felt (genuine closeness or affection or shared experience), not as an attempt to create it.

- There's a kind of inertia to closeness -- a nickname will be much better received if the namee is already looking for reasons to like you. (The reason cool people can get away with being fonts of nicknames, is that most of the namees already kinda like the cool person, and so are pleased by the expression of closeness.)

- A person's self-identified subculture and individual history can play a huge role in that person's receptiveness to nicknames.

- Nicknames are least likely to be well-received when they suggest a relationship that the namee does not believe exists between namer and namee, or would not like to dwell on: for example, when they remind the namee of his subordinate status, or when they suggest more intimacy (e.g., sexual) than the namee reciprocates, or when they evoke a characteristic the namee dislikes about himself.

- It can't hurt to find a playful-but-serious way of explicitly clearing a nickname before introducing it.

Thanks to all!
posted by foursentences at 1:32 PM on November 4, 2010


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