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What’s In a Name?

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By Lucy Johnstone – Guest Writer

It’s safe to say we don’t usually get a choice about what we are named. A name is something bestowed upon most of us at birth, usually by our parents. Nicknames are a substitute for our actual name, which, again, we don’t often get a choice about. And while a nickname is most commonly aimed to express endearment, it can also have entirely the opposite effect.

Case in point; my own first name being Lucy, I’m all too familiar with the different ways school bullies can take the prefix “Lu” and turn it into “Loo” which is of course another word for “toilet”; and when you consider that “Lu” rhymes with “poo” (gasp) a whole world of juvenile nonsense is opened up. “Lucy-Lu went to the loo to do a poo!”, “skip to the loo my darling”, “Waterloo. Lucy-Lu did a poo!”… Ha ha (insert eye rolling emoji).

Luckily for me, the silly “Loo” and “Poo” related nicknames were left behind with the squashed sandwiches and HB pencils of my primary school years. These days people pretty much call me Lucy, with the exception of my husband who calls me “Coco”, a fond nickname relating to my love of chocolate. I call him “Fuzzy” because he’s one of those bearded, lumber-sexy men. You’re right-we’re adorable. But what to do if you’re stuck with a nickname you actually can’t stand? A friend gave me an example of a workmate who was teased a lot as a child and young man because he has a nose which in circa 1992 some school bully decided was big (it’s actually a perfectly normal nose, which makes the nickname all the more unfortunate). Kids started off calling him “Pinnochio” which then sadly was shortened to “Pin”. He’s 34 and people still call him “Pin” which he hates! Well, Pin, Shorty, Snort, Chicken, Dodo, Spiky and all the rest of you who hate their nicknames, I’ve done the research and there are three key courses of action to take before resigning yourself to a lifetime of being called “Dingo breath”…

Firstly-don’t respond unless people use your real name.

Secondly-correct people with a simple “I actually prefer (insert preferred name)”.

Thirdly- correct people by referring to yourself in the third person. For example, when someone says “Squirty likes iced coffee”, you say “Samantha likes iced coffee”, emphasising your own name.

Nicknames based on insecurities is peak 1970s school bullying. Don’t do it.

There are few topics that are underpinned by taste, personal and cultural preferences quite like that of names. The immature taunts of some of my schoolmates aside, I like my name, and I’m grateful I didn’t end up with something trendy, too long, or with an “alternative” spelling (that’s the teacher in me, having those preferences-no judgement if you’re into any of those things) but what happens if you end up with an inarguably unfortunate name? According to the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, there’s every likelihood that not only will your education suffer, your sex life will as well and you’ll be more prone to drug and alcohol addiction.

It gets worse. The same academic journal reports that if you have a moniker like “Pinkie Dick”, “Buddy Boiler” or “Princess-Fifi-Trixibell-Daisy-Buttercup” you’re more likely to be unlucky in love. Of the 12,000 participants in name desirability research, the majority responded that an embarrassing name would be a deal breaker when it came to accepting an invitation for a date. As if navigating single life wasn’t challenging enough, now we are actually rejecting each other before we’ve even met, on nothing more than the basis of a name?

The psychology behind names is complicated and personal. Hearing the name of someone who has negative connotations for you can evoke additional negative responses in the brain when you hear that name again, even when it belongs to a completely different person. In general (and of course there’ll always be exceptions) it is difficult to have feelings of affection towards someone who has the same name as the boy who teased you in school for having thighs “like kauri trees”, the boss who made you clean the toilets more than your fair share of times, or the dude from university with the awful body odour…

Teachers sometimes have trouble naming their own children, as many beautiful names will also doubtless belong to a child they’ve had in their class at some stage. And nobody wants to give their own child the same name as the kid with the insufferable helicopter parents, the one who vomited all over your dress on the first day of term, or who continuously picked their nose despite your impassioned pleading for them not to. Unfortunately, as well as ruining your favourite dress, they ruined the name Peter for you forever.

Something I have learned when it comes to names, is that a certain amount of kindness needs to be practiced. When my children were born, I chose monikers which I thought were beautiful and meaningful. I put months of thought into this very important decision, but it still didn’t prevent people from mispronouncing the names, or from making comments like “did you make that up?” (I did not).  It doesn’t seem to matter whether a new baby is given a simple, more common name, or something which is less traditional, people always seem to have an opinion, and sometimes it’s not a kind one. Life hack-what other people chose to name their children is one of those things which you don’t get to share your thoughts about unless the parents directly ask you. And even then, proceed with caution.

Empathy aside, what if you really have ended up with a name that leaves you the unwilling victim of a lifetime of embarrassment? I’m talking a moniker like Mike Litorous, Dean Gillberry or Barbie Queue? Or what if your parents chose a lovely name but in their exhilaration at meeting their gorgeous new baby, forgot to take the time to consider the resulting initials of their choice of name, leaving you destined to being A. Fiddler, P. Ennis or F. Yu? When forced to choose between a lifetime of watching people trying to keep a straight face when you introduce yourself, a lifetime of blaming your parents for their lack of foresight or visiting the local Deed Poll office, I would suggest the latter. Go and choose yourself something fabulous and carry on being the amazing human you are.

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