I have a friend who calls me Mish, short for Miss Mishegoss, because when we met I was in the middle of a ton of psychic garbarge and mishegoss is the Yiddish word for craziness. My dad called me "Gravel Gertie" when I didn't comb out my curls or "Sarah Heartburn" when he thought I was being too dramatic. (That one's still my favorite). A lot of people who can't remember my name call me "Red," which is what they also called my father; since both of us have (or had, in his case) red hair.
Names give us identity in a paint-by-numbers world, and I guess that's why we fight so hard for them. (If you don't believe me, try misspelling someone's name at work and see how fast you get called on it). Nicknames provide something more; they tell us how others think about us, or even how we think about ourselves.
Growing up, I didn’t much like my first name OR middle name, and ended up changing the middle name, which is now what I go by. It made me think about people who feel they should have been born female or male when they aren’t; it’s similar, I think, to how you can feel about your name.
My husband’s legal name is Peter, but he won’t be called anything except Pete. (This rule, of course, exempts parents and other naming beings, because they obviously chose our names because they liked them).
I used to wonder about names I thought old fashioned or odd; did the kids I knew with those names want to change them? Somehow, this wasn’t something we ever discussed.
Some friends in college came up with “Lark” for me, because it sounded like my last name but added more of what they thought about my energy. I liked it sometimes and not other times. I have a colleague these days who just calls m e “Zark,” and I like that just fine.
But nicknames are still a wild card. A lot of times they’re anything but flattering, and make you wish the people using them would disappear. It seems we don’t really have much control over our own names, but we have even less control over nicknames, which are often based on appearances. Too often, bullies give us names we can't stand, and I guess that must be a requirement if you're a bully; giving someone an ugly name that makes them feel humiliated.
On the other hand, being a writer gives you the opportunity to name characters—and give THEM nicknames, and know they won’t complain. My family of Tabeatas in The Beat on Ruby Street are really named Tabita—but as the main character Ruby explains, they changed their name “for the Beat.” That tells me and hopefully you a little more about them, and the importance of the Beat Generation to their lives.
Right now I’m thinking of giving another character in the book a nickname for book two of the Beat Street Series. I think it may be her last name, but I’m giving myself a little time to decide.
Where I really go crazy is giving nicknames to my cat. I have no idea why this entertains me so much, but I don't seem to be able to stop, and it will probably get worse, not better. Luckily my cat just has to put up with it.
I did find a few other thoughts on kids and nicknames here, in case you’re interested: