". . . and I heard my name as if for the first time. . ."

Unlike your sisters Oatie and Robert John, you had no nickname growing up. People, including your family, called you Alison.

You can remember your father, the bestower of nicknames, studying you one day and then trying out the nickname “Champ.” That lasted for about a day, whereas Oatie and Robert John still answer to their nicknames.

It seemed as if, from the get-go, you were not the nickname type. Which was all right, because you always liked your name. Alison. You still do. You like its one-l-instead of two-l-ness, its three-syllableness. You used to write it over and over in notebooks, in loopy middle-school script, when you got bored in class.

You drew the line at dotting the i with a heart, star or flower, though. (Is that evidence of a Puritanical streak? Did the Puritans dislike nicknames?)

Your nicknameless childhood passed and you went off to college, up there in the mountains, and life expanded in all directions. You met your best friend the day you arrived. Within days she was calling you Allie. That was your first real nickname. She is still your best friend, and she still calls you Allie. Sometimes she says “Alison” in a certain tone of voice if she needs you to listen up, and you listen up. You have nicknames for her too: El, or EBHBSP.

Some people find it almost impossible to call a person by their given name, their proper, legal name. This sort of person bestows nicknames instantly and without thinking. You work with such a person at the university where you teach in the fall. She is one of the reasons why you love teaching there.

“Hey, Allie,” she said the second time she ever saw you, her brown eyes full of fun. “You don’t mind if I call you Allie, do you?”

Nope. You didn’t. And don’t, as long as she and your best friend and your sister Oatie are the ones calling you Allie.

She has nicknames for all your other friends there at the university too. Some she calls only by their last names, others by shortened first names, and still others by nicknames which last only a day, or an hour. She’s a Jersey girl; talk and laughter come easily to her. Maybe that makes a nicknaming difference.

To this day, almost everyone calls you by your full first name. Because you’re not a Jersey girl? Because you give off a don’t-mess-with-my-name vibe? Because you never dotted the i in Alison with a heart or star or flower?

There is one nickname, though, that a very few people who know you very well use around you. This nickname seems to arise in each of them spontaneously, and each, over the years, began using it without asking first –“hey, do you mind if I call you _______?”– or even seeming to think about it.

This nickname crosses many years and much geography and is confined, again, to a very few.

When others who don’t know you well use this nickname, having heard those others use it, your entire body tenses. No. You have no right. Outwardly, you might smile politely, but inwardly, you bristle and fling up walls against the invasion.

From the original users, though, the ones who spontaneously arose with the nickname, it sounds exactly right. They don’t ask if they can use it, you barely notice (but you do notice) when they first do, and something inside you shifts.

There must be something more to nicknames than you consciously know. There is so much in a name, after all; the same must be true or truer for a nickname.

The truth is that everyone who begins to call you by this nickname is someone you adore, someone who loves you back. This nickname is a name you didn’t choose and wouldn’t, in any other circumstance, like. But here? It means that you have been seen. You are known. You can let down your guard.

Sometimes it seems as if, on some level, you walk through life waiting to hear this name.

5 comments

  1. Judy · September 18, 2011

    Love it, Alison! It makes me want to write out my ‘nickname’ story. On my blog I recently wrote about how my name seemed to fall off the map the minute my mom christened me with it (I’m the youngest Judy you’ll EVER know…) but I never even touched the nickname component.

    I was the middle child – two older sisters, two younger brothers. The brothers were in their own orbit, my life revolved around being the youngest sister. So they were always smarter, prettier, witty-er…they were always older. To this day sometimes I feel like I can’t ‘grow up’ in their minds.

    When I was younger, they called me Judy Pudy. It was endearing. It made me feel special. It’s the kind of name cherished little girls had, in all the books I read.

    But you’re right. NO ONE else could call me that. Not my brothers, not even my parents. It just felt wrong. It was my name from my sisters.

    But at some point, maybe when I hit college and realized I was capable and smart and pretty (enough) all on my own, I started to cringe a bit when they said it. In phone calls and at holiday gatherings it would be pulled out and used, only in a spirit of loveliness, but it seemed to have the power to push me down.

    It made me feel inferior then. Like I was still trapped in the little, naive sister mode.

    Now I’m in my 40s. I have reached a point that it doesn’t bother me at all when my oldest sister calls me Pudy, but it rubs me all wrong when my middle sister does. I think it has something to do with underlying respect. My oldest sister has accepted me as a grown up. She values my opinion and we have bonded over teen daughter stories and tragedies. When she (rarely) says “Pudy”, it drips of love.

    When my other sister says it (almost every time I hear from her), it still implies ‘I’m your older sister. I know more than you. You’d be wise to take my unsolicited advice..’ I sometimes wonder if she realizes I have twice as many kids, twice the ages of her boys, when she gives *me* parenting advice.

    Nicknames…what a treasure trove of stories they bring up! Thanks for that fun romp, on this quiet Sunday morning!

    Judy

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  2. Lucy · September 18, 2011

    My family were always big on nicknames, sometimes I feel slightly embarrassed that we seem incapable of referring to each other by our full given names; I know it can be irritating to outsiders. I remember when my sister-in-law got cross with someone in our family shortening her name, which was her prerogative, my mother opined that it was petty and ‘inconsequential’ to fuss about what people called you. She was wrong of course, but in fact I’ve never minded much what I’ve been called.

    In fact my youngest brother, her husband, is the only one who very firmly trained us out of using the ‘Pip’ shortening of his name, which my dad loved to call him, in favour of ‘Phil’, which seems a bit sad on reflection, but he struggled at school with bullying etc so I suppose a babyish nickname was too much.

    Tom decided against my family nickname, which has at times been taken up by others close to me, preferring a simpler shortening which feels more like his own to him. That’s fine, though I don’t tell him that it’s actually been quite commonplace in my life and really less intimate to me than the odder, older family one. Voice and tone are important in these matters too.

    As Judy says, a rich and interesting subject, and lovely writing as ever.

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  3. Karen · September 18, 2011

    I’m fascinated by names. In the middle of fourth grade I decided I was mature enough to be called Karen instead of by my nickname, Kari. Since that time, I have been Kari only to family members, friends from the church I grew up in, and the people I knew from the community music school which was practically a second home. Everybody else knows me as Karen. I, too, seem to give off a don’t-mess-with-my-name vibe, because there is almost no crossover from Kari to Karen or vice-versa.

    Once in a while, though, somebody I’ve just met misunderstands the pronunciation of my name completely and thinks my name is Carmen. (A name which probably couldn’t be farther away from my personality and always strikes me as really funny.)

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  4. Nicole · September 21, 2011

    I love this story so much! I can totally relate. I have never really had a nick name that stuck either. My mom called me a bunch of silly things when I was very little, but most of my life I was just “Nicole”. When I got to college though, people started calling me “Nicolio” – Well, just some very close friends, and they still do to this day. But, it is one of those things that I love being called by those few people.

    A secretly enjoy being called “Nic” but only one or two girlfriends do that. Funny enough, Ross (my partner) ex-girlfriend who I have become friends with, apparently referred to me as “Nic” when Ross was talking to her the other day. and Ross said “no one calls her that… well, I guess you do now.” Haha. I was very happy to hear of it.

    Nicknames are such an interesting thing. I love both of your sister’s nicknames. Oatie is amazing! I am sure a good story there. I am glad to hear though you have a nick name w/those few special friends. I think perhaps nick names we share w/just a few are the best.

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  5. alison · September 24, 2011

    I love these stories, every one of them. Who knew that the topic of nicknames would strike such a chord? Makes me think there should be a little anthology devoted expressly to nickname stories.

    Like

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