Day 10 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge
by·name (ˈbī-ˌnām), n. 1. a second name; surname. 2. a nickname.
We humans are obsessed with what to call things. We need names for everything. And then we need new names. We gives names as a way of formalizing behaviors. We name new technology and add it to the lexicon. We name babies and then we immediately come up with nicknames for them. Once we have uniqued their existence, we need to unique them again.
Bynames often refer to shortened versions of someone’s name. In many cases, the name is shortened because there is someone else in the family with the same name. Many of my family members were nicknamed: my grandmother Celeste was Sally to family members, my grandfather Eugene was Gene, my maw maw Josephine was Tante Fine to her nieces and nephews. And my father and his brothers all had nicknames growing up, some of them lasting to adulthood: Tommy, Jimmy, Johnny, and Tommy. A point guard on her high school basketball team, the announcer always called my mom “tall drink of water.” My dad studied theology in Italy, where Romans referred to all the seminarians in their long dark robes as bagarozzi, or cockroaches.
The word nickname comes from the compound word ekename, meaning additional name, which dates back to 1303. Ekename comes from the Old English phrase “eaca,” an increase. The word changed from ekename to nekename and then to its current spelling: nickname.
There is a surprisingly large amount of information written about nicknames on the web. There are articles on the impetus to nickname, the origin of the word nickname, how certain nicknames for popular Western names came to be, why certain cities have their nicknames, why we should stop naming hugely destructive storms with generic names and instead name them after climate change deniers, and why you should let people in professional contexts call you by your nickname.
Nicknames can arise from teasing or poking fun, but often even these names are bestowed with a sense of endearment. Japanese honorifics are nicknames that reveal the specific relationship between family members. Nicknames are made out of last names if multiple people share the same first name.
I was always jealous growing up as my name isn’t very nicknameable. My first name itself was originally intended as a nickname. My parents planned to name me Elizabeth and call me Lisa, but then when they realized they had no intention of calling me Elizabeth ever, it made more sense to just make Lisa my name. I tried several times over the years to nickname myself (a clear no-no) but nothing ever stuck. So I consoled myself with having a name I actually liked and moved on. I have several friends who want or wanted to go by their full name but constantly had to battle for this to be the case. There is something in us that wants to shorten and simplify—we want to create intimacy with one another and we do this by using as few letters as possible.
The President and Chief Operating Officer of Buzzfeed Jon Steinberg wrote an article called “Why You Should Let People Call You By a Nickname.” In it, he talked about how until a decade ago, he went by Jonathan. However, people always tried to call him Jon. After grad school, he began to question his insistence on being called his full name. He writes, “It was akin, in my mind, to telling people who wanted to befriend me or be close to me that they in fact could not be. I decided that I valued closeness more than I valued my formal name, and switched to Jon. Never looked back.”
Steinberg also talks about a study by The Ladders that revealed that executives with short names tend to earn more. In his own informal study, he found that of the Fortune 50, “14 CEOs or 28% go by Nicknames and 32% have Nickname-like First Names. Combined, 60% of Fortune 50 CEOs go by a Nickname or have a Nickname-like First Name.” He cites successful people who go by nicknames: Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Jamie Dimon, Meg Whitman, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. He says this is less about convenience than it is about trust. When we call each other by nicknames or shorter versions of our names, there is more of a capacity for emotional connection. He writes, “a short name or nickname is a sign of intimacy, trust, and friendship. These can often be critical attributes in the building of a successful organization. Whereas a long and formal name creates a barrier, a short one can break down walls.”
What about you all? Do you have bynames? What are they? Where did they come from? What do they mean to you? I’d love to hear from you.
3 responses to “by·name”
interesting topic. i have struggled with trying to fit my name to me for a lifetime. as a child, people called me ‘debbie.’ at sixteen i finally succeeded in dusting off ‘deborah’ and feeling more at home within it, but people are always eager to shorten my name to ‘deb’ or ‘debbie,’ which leaves me feeling dysphoric; somehow those names seem laden with forced femininity. somehow ‘deborah’ seems more neutral, although it is still a ‘gendered’ name. i much prefer ‘devorah,’ harkening back to the hebrew, which means bee.
“dusting off deborah,” I love that. I really appreciate all you spoke to here. It’s so interesting, we are given our name(s) and spend our whole lives shapeshifting into or out of them. I couldn’t imagine changing my first name but I know people who have and I think it is an act of real bravery. I think whatever steps we take to own how we are called are really beautiful.
My given name is Robert and my nickname is Bob. My wife calls me Robert whenever I need (in her mind) to be chastised. I never really liked to be called Robert, but for the last 30 years I really haven’t liked it. I always tell her that my name is B.O.B.-it starts with a B ends with a B and there is an o in the middle!