Legal name unrelated to a nickname?
May 17, 2016 9:58 AM   Subscribe

My son has a (rather elegant, if I say so myself) legal name, and a less elegant nickname that we use every day. Is this going to be a problem?

Our son started out life with a grand name, but it just didn't suit a baby, and a nickname sort of appeared. The nickname and the legal name are not ones that are ordinarily connected, though they aren't crazy different. Think maybe, "Bo" for Robert, or "Rita" for Gertrude. Not entirely unconnected, but certainly not an obvious nickname.

Years on, pretty much everyone knows him as the nickname. I was thinking recently that maybe I should amend the birth certificate so that this name is on it. It would sound a bit odd on the certificate -- think Robert Bo Smith -- but it's possible. I want to keep the option of the grand name for when he's older and obviously becomes President -- I'd like to hear it at his swearing in.

Also, he's not in school yet, and we might decide to use the big name there, though no one ever uses it now.

Is there any reason to do this? Does anyone go by a nick name pretty unrelated to their given name? Does it cause a lot of problems for you?
posted by heavenknows to Grab Bag (53 answers total)
My nickname is my initials, which spell a common, short name - not one that I would use at work or for anything official, but what I'm usually called by friends and how I introduce myself to people outside of work. It's never been a problem.

This happens a lot more than you think. It's fine.
posted by punchtothehead at 10:01 AM on May 17, 2016 [10 favorites]

My husband introduces himself to every single person he meets as "Bo." To me, he's always been "Robert". Sometimes there's a little weirdness after meeting the landlord/car salesman or whatever and then "Robert" is on the application, but it's a 10 second discussion and no one really cares.
posted by getawaysticks at 10:03 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a cousin whose first name is Robert, and his initials are R.I.K. He has always gone by Rik, Rikky when he was a kid, and everyone knows him as Rik. It's never been a problem for him. I would guess that most people think his name is Rick.
posted by Dolley at 10:04 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a roughly similar name situation, and it's one of the smallest and most easily resolved problems I ever have. I wouldn't bother with birth certificate amendments or anything like that.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:04 AM on May 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

My shortened name starts with a different letter to my legal name, and the biggest annoyance is people writing cheques to me that my bank won't accept.
posted by kadia_a at 10:07 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

My father goes by Doc because he was the seventh son in his family, and was thus the son that was supposed to become a doctor. (He's not a doctor.) His legal name is... not Doc.

Now maybe it's more obvious that Doc is a nickname than some other choices, but it's never been a problem for him.

Generally, if asked why your legal documents have a name other than the one you go by, you just say "it's a nickname" and you're done.
posted by kindall at 10:07 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Agreed that it likely won't be a problem. A kind thing you can do for him, though, is support him when he's old enough to legally amend his name himself. Let him make the choice when he's of age. But again, this shouldn't be a big deal.
posted by Pearl928 at 10:10 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

When John Ellis Bush ran for president it was using his non-legal nickname, Jeb, so your son should be fine. (Though maybe Jeb's is not the best example of a presidential campaign.)
posted by ejs at 10:15 AM on May 17, 2016 [13 favorites]

Also, he's not in school yet, and we might decide to use the big name there, though no one ever uses it now.

The school will most likely want to use the big name on his official records, but teachers are pretty good at using nicknames if that's what the kid wants to go by (among my three school-aged kids, two of them use or have used nicknames at school, and it's never been a problem for them or the teachers or the other kids).
posted by Etrigan at 10:20 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nah, not worth the hassle.

Besides, when he goes to college, he may want to use the elegant name.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:20 AM on May 17, 2016

The only thing you need to be legally careful about is the name you give the school. They will almost certainly have a procedure for this that allows the child to be called whatever the child is called but also covers their liability in situations of an emergency or similar. Just ask, and then do it however they need it done.

I have gone by my middle name since I was 19, my mother and her sister have gone by middles since birth, my husband has an entirely different stage name that he works under. He has a DBA because checks get made out to his other name all the time. This might be something you do when he's a teenager, though by then I kind of assume all banking will be fingerprint based or at least there won't be checks anymore, so it might never matter.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:21 AM on May 17, 2016

I'm not sure where you are located, but as a transplant from New England to the South, I was shocked at the great number of people here that go by middle names and/or nicknames unrelated to their legal name. Aside from minor confusions/inconveniences (checks, as mentioned above) this is a non-issue.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:24 AM on May 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

I've got a friend named K---- whose friends know her as S----. There's a nice split in who knew her when and how by what name they call her. One of the big muckety-mucks where I work has a good, old-fashioned name, and goes by "Skip." Not a problem. My husband's grandfather and father both went by different names than their given name (and both named their son their given name, go figure); my husband was satisfied by changing the spelling enough that it confuses everyone.
posted by JawnBigboote at 10:24 AM on May 17, 2016

It will require a little extra explanation when passing through the tender ministrations of the TSA, crossing borders, starting school, etc., so it might be helpful to do some coaching/role-playing prior to doing those things for the first time.

I have always gone by my middle name instead of my first, which (as a somewhat neurotic, shy kid) made the first roll call of a new class somewhat fraught, but it's been handy in the intervening decades in instantly identifying telemarketers when they ask for "Robert" instead of "Bo" or - worse - "Rob" or "Bobby".
posted by verschollen at 10:24 AM on May 17, 2016

My aunt Sue was named Jeanette, but literally nobody ever called her that. They called her Sue, because her grandfather used to sing "Sioux City Sue" to her. It was never an issue. Legally, she was Jeanette, but in all other ways, she was Sue.
posted by xingcat at 10:27 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

My son is totally a Bo even though his given name is Robert-ish. That's just him. He's 20 and it's never been a problem.
posted by headnsouth at 10:28 AM on May 17, 2016

As long as he knows to answer to the legal name and to be polite as he asserts that he goes by the nickname, there's no problem in the world. Anyone who looks at legal names as part of their job is well aware, or quickly learns, that people go by all the names in the world unrelated to their legal names, for the reasons you listed and more. You don't have to legitimize a nickname for the state-- you legitimized it already because that's what he recognizes as his name.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:31 AM on May 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

My (now ex) wife and I call one of our kids by different names. She calls him one nickname and me another. Friends and family use both. His real name is hardly ever used. He just laughs about it. He is now 20.
posted by AugustWest at 10:31 AM on May 17, 2016

In this day and age, this seems to only be a big deal if you want to be Bo on Facebook. They will have a cow about their Real Name Policy.

As long as Bo does not care about Facebook, this really does not matter.
posted by Michele in California at 10:32 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

The only thing you need to be legally careful about is the name you give the school.

For example, I just filled out an online enrollment for my kids for school next year, and one of the places in the form asked what the kids want to be called.

(But I *wouldn't* amend the birth certificate.)
posted by leahwrenn at 10:36 AM on May 17, 2016

A family friend is Elizabeth, but nicknamed Buffy since she was a toddler. She put Elizabeth on the wedding invitations but professionally and socially she's always been Buffy. She's in her 40s now and has a good, healthy, normal life with no notable confusion.

Another vote for not a problem.
posted by mochapickle at 10:37 AM on May 17, 2016

If your kid isn't even in school yet, he has plenty of time to grow into his elegant name, or choose another completely different name. Don't change the birth certificate.
posted by hydra77 at 10:43 AM on May 17, 2016

A lot of K-12 school registration forms these days have a specific box for "name the child prefers to be called" where you can put a nickname or a middle name or a crazy family name or whatever your kid is accustomed to answering to. He can then show up in the official school records as "Robert James "Bo" Smith" and on the teacher's official roster as "Robert "Bo" Smith" and on her attendance sheets as "Bo Smith."

(It also lets you indicate that if you have a Robert who is NOT BOB, he should be called "Robert" and not "Rob" or "Bob.")

These "name child prefers to be called" fields are flexible enough that we know a kid who was named "Joe Smith" and who put that he preferred to be called "Ben4jamin" and when confused teachers would say "Ben ... four ... jamin Smith?" on the first day he'd say cheerfully, "Just Benjamin, the '4' is silent." "Your parents named you Ben4jamin?" "No, my parents named me Joe, I just prefer to go by Ben4jamin." LONG WAY TO GO FOR A SHORT JOKE.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:46 AM on May 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

Just make sure that the kid knows his legal name himself. I have known someone who found out as an adult that her name wasn't what she thought it was, and so had used her nickname in circumstances when she should have used her legal name. So long as the kid knows his legal name and when to use it, it's not a big deal.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:47 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

Me too. Just as long as all legal documents (health, taxes, banking...) are under his legal name it's fine.

Also when he starts a job he has to make sure they get the legal name on HR for payroll / benefits.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:48 AM on May 17, 2016

Just make sure that the kid knows his legal name himself. I have known someone who found out as an adult that her name wasn't what she thought it was, and so had used her nickname in circumstances when she should have used her legal name.

Oh, man, I just remembered that time that one of my friends did that thing where she was so mad at her daughter that she yelled her full name. No response. Did it again. No response. Stormed upstairs full of righteous fury.

And then realized that they'd never once called the girl by her legal name in all of her seven years. Turns out the kid had no idea whatsoever that her nickname wasn't her real name and was wondering who the hell her mom was yelling at.

(It was "Junie" (because she was born in June, of course) vs. some old-timey name they got from a grandmother or something that they couldn't not name the kid for some reason but hated as a name.)
posted by Etrigan at 10:58 AM on May 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

Unlike Eyebrows McGee, the school district I work for does not have the option for prefered names, and it becomes a very big issue for me in the library because when I update records from the Student Information System, all of the student files revert back to the name in that system. I have 622 students, and this is a common enough problem that I deal with at least one kid in every class with this issue. Some kids don't care, but some kids are really upset that I have the "wrong" name for them. I would see how your child feels when they are in a formal program where the child has to either let their original name stand, or insist on the nickname, and if they insist on the nickname I would have the name changed on the birth certificate. It used to be that you could call yourself whatever you wanted as long as you were not doing it for illegal purposes, since 9/11 that has changed and you must have your name changed on your birth certificates if you want to use it as a legal name.
posted by momochan at 10:59 AM on May 17, 2016

I have a nickname for a legal name and I don't like it. I'd much rather have a formal name for professional settings.
posted by k8t at 11:00 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

yup, like others on the thread I have the same situation - nickname is a lesser-known nickname for my middle name, so when I tell people my "real" first name it's entirely foreign seeming. As an adult I almost feel like i have two personae - the official one "Jane" who deals with bills, receives diplomas, etc, and the one everyone actually knows, "Lala." The only occasional issues I've had were resolved by 1) adding my nickname to my bank account so i can cash checks under either name and 2) making the decision early in my career to publish and generally be known by my nickname.
posted by bluedeans at 11:01 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Don't change his birth certificate.

My shortened name starts with a different letter to my legal name, and the biggest annoyance is people writing cheques to me that my bank won't accept.

Any organization worth their salt (including banks, schools, and doctor's offices) that needs to interact with your son as a person (as opposed to robots at the IRS processing tax returns, etc), will have a way to record some kind of "preferred name", or at least a few AKAs.

My legal name is LegalFirst LegalMaiden, but my bank will let me cash checks written to Nickname LegalMaid, LegalFirst HusbandsLast, or any combination. And this is a big bank with a terrible reputation for customer service.

Your son will be fine.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:19 AM on May 17, 2016

Only hiccup I can think of is if somewhere down the line he would like to get a job that requires a security clearance. So the people who check the clearance may call his friends & relatives and say "I'm conducting a security clearance for Robert Smith" and the friends and family go "Who?" and the security clearance person goes "you may know him by his alias, Bo". And that's about it. In this example it's actually in his favor that you don't change his birth certificate, as that requires more work on the clearance end.

Fwiw, my husband is foreign born and has his foreign name, plus no less than three nicknames in English. It's really no trouble at all - depending on which nickname people address him as, it marks for me what period of his life he knows them from.
posted by vignettist at 11:20 AM on May 17, 2016

Everyone called me nickyname until I was about 18 -not a great nickname, kind of young and hillbilly sounding. Then I got a fake ID and started introducing myself as fullname so I didn't sound too young. From college on people called me fullname (new people-college friends, work colleagues. Sure, high school friends and cousins call me nickyname. It's not weird to me at all.
posted by ReluctantViking at 11:21 AM on May 17, 2016

I'm currently going to school now at a local community college, and I'm also trans - so the name I go by in public is 1. not my legal name (yet), and is 2. wildly different from my legal name. My legal name is unmistakably a female name, and my chosen name is unmistakably a male one. I haven't run into problems from either teachers or other students in regards to it. Here's how it broke down on the first day, when taking roll:

"Is Ms. Blah Spinifex23 here?"
"Yes - but I go by Whirr. Pronouns are he/him."
"OK. Whirr Spinifex23, thank you."

Some teachers have me listed as "Whirr Spinifex23" on their roster, others have me listed as "Blah (Whirr) Spinifex23".

My grades, tuition bills, Official School ID, etc., are still made out to my legal, female name - and they're going to stay that way, as I don't plan on legally changing my name until I'm done with school.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:21 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I go by a nickname (Libby) that is related to but sometimes confusingly so to my given name (Elizabeth). Biggest hassle I experience is when I go to appointments and can't remember if I scheduled them under Libby or Elizabeth, but besides that it hasn't made my life any more complicated. I just make sure to answer to both Libby and Elizabeth when I'm in spaces that folks don't know me as well. Most forms will have a preferred name box- Libby always goes in there, while Elizabeth is for everything legal. Literally all I've experienced at the bank is that the cashier will say, "Huh, Libby is short for Elizabeth? Never heard that before!" and we move on.

I have occasionally thought about changing my legal name to Elizabeth, but the hassle of that way outweighs any minor inconveniences I experience.
posted by superlibby at 11:28 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's a generation or two old, but on my mother's very Catholic side the women (don't know about the men) generally have a very Christian first name (almost universally 'Mary'), and a secular middle name on their birth certificates. Then, they lived their entire lives going by the secular middle name. I discovered my grandmother's real first name was Mary well into my adulthood. Another vote for no big deal, because you're probably already unknowingly surrounded by people living under circumstances where their birth certificate is wildly different from how you know them, and that just goes to prove how irrelevant it is in anything but a legal context.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:32 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

My very Catholic grandpa had a saint first name but went by his middle name (and a nickname of his middle at that). I didn't find out his legal first name almost until his funeral.

I go by a nickname of an elegant legal name (my mom wanted to name me the nickname, my dad wanted me to "have options" when I grew up). The beginning of the school year was always embarrassing for a shy kid like me, and I tried to give up the nickname when I went to junior high (which failed because all the kids knew me as nickname anyway).

Now the biggest issue is what to fill out job applications as - sometimes HR freaks out either way, and getting corporate email addresses either way can be a pain. (When in doubt, fill out the online job application with the legal name)
posted by Maarika at 11:43 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mr Telophase carries the same name as a long line of men going back in his family, and when he was born, his mother insisted on a nickname. So both he *and* his father got nicknamed after baseball players for no particular reason that anyone can remember. The names are unrelated to their shared given name, and have been no trouble whatsoever to either of them. They just introduce themselves as Nickname, or in cases like a job interview, say "I go by Nickname" and almost nobody ever asks why.

(It certainly made it easy for us to know that a salesguy who came by our door was lying when he said our neighbor had mentioned that Legalname might be interested in his product, because our neighbors have no idea what his legal first name is.)
posted by telophase at 11:47 AM on May 17, 2016

(It certainly made it easy for us to know that a salesguy who came by our door was lying when he said our neighbor had mentioned that Legalname might be interested in his product, because our neighbors have no idea what his legal first name is.)

^^ telophase makes a great point here. Everyone in my family except me goes by a nickname instead of a legal name. When we get calls for [LEGAL NAME], we have the advantage of knowing that the asker doesn't actually know the person and can tell right off that it's some sales thing. But when people ask for [NICKNAME], we know it's usually a friend.
posted by mochapickle at 11:56 AM on May 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

No male in family has gone by their birth cert name for 3 generations. My son may be the first!
Grandpa Moshe went by Morris (sometimes Maurice, depending on how posh he wanted to sound), but did his banking as Moshe.
Father Daniel went by his middle name Ronnie to everyone but the IRS and the CPA society.
Uncle Nachman spent his entire career as Norman.
I go by my first initial, because it sounds much less ethnic than my given biblical name.

Yep, nobody would ever be able to spot me as a Jew because I cleverly changed my name from Joshua Rabinowitz to Jay Rabinowitz.

But again, none of us have had any hassles from school, banks, or government because of our nicknames.
posted by bluejayway at 11:57 AM on May 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'll go against the crowd here and say that if it's not a huge inconvenience for you, I would make the change. I go by a name that is an unconventional contraction of my more elegant legal name (I've never heard of anyone else using this short name in relation to the longer), and it's a minor inconvenience, but an inconvenience nonetheless. It would be much easier if the name on my degrees etc. matched the one that everyone associates with me.
posted by Edna Million at 11:58 AM on May 17, 2016

Nth'ing not a problem, just popped in with anecdote: when my grandparents were young, an important intellectual in their city had the idea that if you were afraid your child could be bullied, you could protect them by using the likely derogatory term as a nick-name. As in: your grandchild is black, call them "n….." as a term of endearment. (True story, he actually did that). My grandparents really lived by that advice - I have no idea why they were so afraid of bullying, but their three children and endless row of grandchildren and great-grandchildren all have terrible nicknames. Among others, there's auntie [name of ugly troll], sis [concrete bollard], male cousin [kitty], uncle [ignorant dupe], and little [butt] (my own daughter). I'm not writing the actual names, they are not printable.
Auntie changed her legal name to "Ugly Troll" a few years ago and had her original names removed completely, so I guess in some way, the concept worked. My daughter doesn't mind people calling her "Butt", either.
On the other hand, I have no idea what my mother's nickname was because she legally changed her name to something extremely posh when she was twelve, and then moved out. Obviously her parents helped her change her name, and then insisted on calling her the original name - almost as good as the bullying. Maybe they were actually crazy.

My nickname was Mouse. Not too bad, and no-one calls me that.
posted by mumimor at 11:59 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Deffo not a problem. I'm a "Rita" with a "Gertrude" given name. I went by my nickname as a kid (and never had any problems with paperwork or school or anything) and during college, gradually switched to using my given name professionally and continuing to use my nickname socially. If anything, it gives me an interesting way to psychologically have a little separation between Work Me and Free Time Me. And as an adult who grew into the name, I both appreciate having had a diminutive kid name as a kid and a super-ethnic grownup name that gets me compliments now.

Also, I think names are just...made out to be a bigger problem than they often actually are? I didn't change my last name when I got married, and received at least one check made out to Nickname HusbandsLastName, a person who doesn't even exist, and the credit union gave me zero guff about depositing them. As long as your name is correct on your license, passport, and plane ticket, it doesn't super matter what you go by.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 12:07 PM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of my grandfather's name was Revilo Oliver [W-lastname], and he hated it with a firey passion. It was the name that was on his checks and anything legal, but everyone else in the world called him "Row" (to rhyme with "cow"), which he got from his initials. Honest to god, I thought that was actually his name until I was ten.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:20 PM on May 17, 2016

You know, you should probably plan on letting little Bo know that you would be perfectly happy to help them legally change their name if they so desire, when they are old ernough. But I see no reason to do it for them.

Sometimes, a situation like this is a Bug. Other times, it is a Feature. But Bo has to live with it. Let them decide whether this is a problem or not.
posted by Michele in California at 1:00 PM on May 17, 2016

These days the airlines insist on putting your full legal name on your flight documents, and they will not hear of anything else.

Happens in medical offices, too.
posted by megatherium at 2:21 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

We had to teach our daughter to give her legal name at the airport checkpoints but other than that it hasn't been a big deal to have a nickname.
posted by vespabelle at 2:29 PM on May 17, 2016

I mean this with love and all, but you're overthinking this plate of beans. Leave well enough alone.

There have to be millions of people in the south who go by nicknames less obvious than Bob-for-Robert. It's fiiiiiine. Nobody cares and anyone who has to deal with names on a consistent basis will be familiar with this phenomenon after their first week on the job.

If he prefers to, he can change his legal name as an adult, or you can help him with it when he's getting set to leave the home. If he ends up not caring, all you will accomplish by changing his legal name now is giving him a minor hassle on forms that ask about previous names.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:00 PM on May 17, 2016

A non-standard nickname on one's voter registration could be a problem (depending on how unlikely it seemed) in my state, but that's easily avoided by using one's legal name on all legal documents in the first place.
posted by teremala at 3:14 PM on May 17, 2016

Way over thinking it. I know many Chinese people who never changed their name legally, but go by a western name. My mother's name has a million nicknames, many of which look unrelated. She goes by one of the "I didn't know that was short for..." variations. I know a few people who have always gone by their middle name. Use the legal name where legal names are required and the nickname everywhere else. It's the nonest of non-issues.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:55 PM on May 17, 2016

Not worth the hassle.

More people than you realize use names that are not literally on their birth certificates. As mentioned before, it's common and unremarkable for Chinese-Americans to use a Western name that is not mentioned on their birth certificate. My (Chinese) wife only ever uses her birth certificate name for legal/financial documents. Not even her parents call her by her Chinese name.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:51 PM on May 17, 2016

My dad's name is Alexander, and he's gone by Xandy his entire life. It was a childhood nickname that Grandma never intended to stick around, but it did. It's never caused him any problems (other than many people not knowing how to spell it when they'd only heard it, or how to say it when they'd only read it). In fact he finds it to be a useful test for whether or not someone knows him when they call--if they ask for "Alexander" they are obviously not a friend.
posted by rhiannonstone at 9:03 PM on May 17, 2016

My experience with medical offices varies, but the clinic I go to has a 'preferred name' or 'nickname' field, and they have 'Whirr' in there as the name I like to be called by. It may be because they handle a fair bit of trans care, and thus they are attuned to that, but it's not unheard of. Same with my therapist's office. They refer to me as 'Whirr'.

I do make it clear to them, though, that my health insurance is listed under 'Blah', and "Blah' is my legal name.

When I check in, though, I have to say "This is 'Blah Spinifex23'; I may also be listed under 'Whirr'."

(Now I want to honestly change my name to 'Whirr').
posted by spinifex23 at 10:27 AM on May 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

My grandfather's first name was Aaron, but everybody knew him as Ernie. The only times he used Aaron was for banking, legal stuff, and anything else where his name needed to match the one on his birth certificate.
posted by SisterHavana at 4:53 PM on May 18, 2016

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