By Any Other Name

30th November 2012

He’s a man you should treat with respect, especially if you’re writing to him at this time of year, but Santa Claus, known formally as Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas, is most often referred to, familiarly, as ‘Santa’. Heather Harris muses on the popularity and benefits – or otherwise – of nicknames and (not-so-) affectionate shortenings…

The man in red & white is not alone in being the victim of nickname obsession. Cricketers are the worst. Freddie, Straussy, Vaughny, Cookie… No wonder poor Kevin Pietersen was ostracised by the England dressing room: Pietersenee was far too far wide of the wicket . They could have called him KP, of course, but that just made him sound nuts…

According to highly paid psychologists, probably called Doc or Prof, nicknames in sport illustrate ‘mutual admiration and bonding’. And the practice isn’t restricted to the sports field; the use of nicknames is becoming increasingly popular, as any school dinner lady or playground monitor will tell you. Anyone who christens their child Nicholas or Joseph, for example (both very suitable for the time of year), has to recognise that before their characters have developed, some will have been deleted. No matter how hard a parent insists that teachers refer to their child by their full name, and labels their uniform accordingly, pupil power and public pressure will decide otherwise.

Take our future Queen as an example: the entire nation has, by royal decree, been told to call her Catherine. But even the BBC newsreaders keep forgetting and clearly no-one told the mug makers and teatowel printers.

As ‘Kate’ she is one of us. As ‘Catherine’ she is as aloof and remote. It’s no coincidence that when the presence of Prince Henry was announced at the Olympic Closing Ceremony (by Seb, aka Sebastian, Coe) we all raised a quizzical eyebrow – surely that wasn’t fun-loving Harry’s real name?

Nicknames have had their uses, though, and actually form the origin of many of today’s surnames. In the Middle Ages nicknames marking physical characteristics or personality traits were given to individuals and then came to identify a family. So a dark-haired person, and their offspring, would be called Black, someone with a shock of pale hair: Whitehead. A chirpy person was duly a Sparrow; someone skilled at negotiation: Makepeace.

All very straightforward unless you had a deformity. Tact was clearly not invented in the 16th century. Modern families called Crook might be disappointed to discover their ancestors were hunchbacks whilst Cripwell was the common nickname for a lame person. The late Sir Michael Foot MP once commented that his surname was the highly uninventive medieval term for anyone with a deformed lower limb.

We are now far more politically correct – but try telling that to the spotties, fatties and baldies of this world, because that’s the thing with nicknames… not all of them are pleasant. As the official definition of the term states ‘A nickname is sometimes considered desirable, symbolising a form of acceptance, but can often be a form of ridicule.’

And I speak from experience. Being a verbose child, with the maiden name of Capel, I was quickly labeled Cake-hole… although that was marginally better than the name I acquired at University. As the only girl with glasses and flares in a punk-filled Art and Design faculty, I was endearingly referred to as Cuboid. That’s cuboid as in square.

Examples where nicknames are not immediately obvious are arguably far superior. For every hundred ginger-haired boys called Carrot Top there must be only a handful answering to Duracell (as in the orange-topped battery). My mother recalls that the cleverest boy in her school was called Bottle, even by the teachers; a so much more inventive reference to his glasses than Speccy or Four Eyes. Six foot eight inch comedian, Greg Davies tells how he grew up with the label Two Boys (far more original than Beanpole or Lanky). And Watford FC player, Fitz Hall is rather cleverly referred to as One Size by the terraces.

A reason for this rise in nicknames has also been blamed – like obesity and crime – on social media. As parents we like to pretend our children have taken note of the need to keep their true identity secret when playing communal video games across the world of wi-fi. The fact is that when they’re fighting aliens with laser guns they really don’t want Brian or Norman to flash up on the screen as their player name, now do they? Scarface definitely has a ‘cooler’ ring to it. For girls called Mary, Jane or Barbara the ability to hide behind their glamorous new identity of Angel Dust or Skinny Jeans or Flower Power (real – or at least, online – examples) adds an exotic touch when swapping fashion tips with a click of their keyboards.

Personally, I quite like the idea of having a new name. The combination of three children and the curtailing of outdoor activities during the recent poor weather has resulted in severe over usage of my current one – Muuuuuuummmmm… At this time of year, Santa, sorry, Saint Nicholas, probably feels the same. There are worse things, though; think of Rudolph…

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