Brand building through storytelling

What’s in a nickname

Once upon a time, when Expo 67 was welcoming the world and Sergeant Peppertopped the charts, I willingly answered to a nickname.

This would amaze everyone who’s been met with a frosty stare for addressing me as anything other than Rona. Ro? Reminds me of a wooden boat. Rone? Rhymes with “groan.” Unthinkable. But in my senior year of high school, my friend Barbara dreamed up something more whimsical. She noticed that I couldn’t stop lamenting the state of my long, bushy hair, which kinked and frizzed instead of flowing like silk. What began as a private joke eventually inspired a nickname, bestowed with affection and known only to the few who hung out with me and Barbara. After graduation, I forgot it for 43 years.

Now I’m getting in the mood for a school reunion this weekend. So I’ve been paging through my old yearbook. And there, in Barbara’s round, precise hand, I found my lost nickname.

If you’ve got a nickname, odds are you didn’t choose it yourself, no matter how urgently you might have wanted to. My sister Joyce decided as a child that she should be known as Cricket. To her it must have seemed a badge of belonging: popular girls had perky nicknames. The Maynard girls were not popular, and Cricket never caught on. Through Joyce’s disappointment, I glimpsed the harsh truth about nicknames: they’re about how the world sees you, not how you want to be seen. Case in point: Marsha, the fattest girl in my fourth grade class. The boys liked to call her Giant Elephant.

Even as a child, I sensed that nicknames have more than a little to do with power. They allow someone other than yourself to determine how you’re going to be seen. Tellingly, they’re often bestowed in families, where children are cast as “the cute one,” “the serious one” and so on. I know of people who identify so closely with these first nicknames, their real names all but disappear. Dufflet Rosenberg, Toronto’s best-known baker, got the moniker from an older brother and has built a thriving brand around it. For other people, rejecting a nickname is part of growing up. My son announced in his teens that we were not to call him Benjy or Benj anymore. From that day forward he was Ben.

A familial nickname looms large in one of John Cheever’s most memorable stories,“Goodbye, My Brother.” The returning prodigal of the title, the youngest brother in a hard-drinking clan where presumed closeness is a point of pride, is the only member with a nickname (three if you count the insinuating cast-offs, Little Jesus and Croaker). Everyone calls him Tifty in memory of the sound his slippers used to make when he shuffled down the hall for breakfast. His nickname signals a thinly veiled condescension that propels the story toward a haunting, anguished rupture.

I could muse on the significance of nicknames in sport (Magic Johnson, born Earvin). Or the Oval Office (Dubya, Tricky Dick). Or the blues, where fame demanded a colourful handle (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf). Others can speculate on that stuff, but just try finding anyone else who can tell you my lost nickname. I’ll deliver the goods on one condition: that you never, ever address me by it. So here goes: Barbara used to call me Kink. I don’t know if she remembers. But I’m keen to find out.

Click here to read one of my favourite posts about friendship, “A rhubarb pie between friends.” And do click the link to the blues nicknames, some of them pretty obscure. What a pungent slice of musical history.


Posted by Rona

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