Tuesday, July 15, 2008

what's in a (nick)name

I watched a few reruns of The Office this weekend. One of my favorites was the one where Pam and Jim go over to Michael and Jan’s for a dinner party, and it’s super freaky because Michael and Jan keep calling each other “babe” in the most passive-aggressive act of mock-affection I’ve ever seen. On the way home, Pam and Jim pick up the trend, and it’s hilarious.

That got me thinking about stupid pet names that I hate – such as “boo” – which then got me thinking about nicknames. More specifically, those lucky enough to have cool ones. Like my dad. He’s been known as Pex since childhood. Not because he has rippling pectoral muscles or looks like Gregory Peck, but simply because he happens to share a first name with the actor.

I wrote about my friend Chappy once, and I have another friend called Smooth. There’s the kind that are obvious – a family friend who’s known as Dimps because of two very prominent dimples in his cheeks – and the kind that take some explanation, like my college friends Money and Peaches. Some origins will never really be known, such as a family friend named Walter who’s been called Rocky since before I was born. Some of my friends are just lucky enough to have names that lend themselves to cool nicknames, like Bugs, Ligda, and Filthy.

There was one kid, Robbie – who I pretended to hate but very secretly liked – who called me Sherbert (yes, with the second “r”) which his brilliant third-grade mind derived from the pronunciation of my last name. In eighth grade, I got “the Rachel” hair cut, but the hairdresser neglected to mention that with my curly hair, the cut would be less “Rachel-y” and more “vomit-y.” One day in gym as the class was running laps, I heard two girls say my hair made me look like a shaggy dog. They called me Lassie for a few weeks until they moved onto a new target.

I’ve had one cool nickname in my life, and I have a small, German woman to thank for it.

In high school, I was a dietary aide in a hospital near my house, and my best friend Sean started working there senior year. We worked the dinner shift together, spooning out portions of flavorless food, sneaking pudding cups from the walk-in cooler, and racing the rest of the staff to see who could sanitize the fastest. One of our supervisors was a very small, very German lady named Annie. Although most of our coworkers couldn’t stand her, Sean and I liked Annie for many reasons, not least of all being her thick accent. She would stand at the end of the tray assembly line and shout out the items missing from each. “Banana!” “Soup! “Blue milk!” for two-percent.

One particularly memorable day, I had accidentally put juice on the tray of a patient who was on a liquid-restriction diet. Nearly shaking in her small frame, she shouted, “No juice!”… except with her German accent, it came out as – you guessed it – “No Jews!”

In the six years that I worked there, she could never say my name correctly and called me Bocky every single time. On my last day, she was quite a bit more saddened by my departure than I had expected, and she gave me a small gift with a card that said “Good luck, Becky – you’re a good girl.” I never knew if she had thought my name was Bocky all along and just learned she’d been using the wrong vowel the entire time, or if it really was her foreign accent that resulted in the coolest nickname of all time.

Sean relayed the story to everyone at school, and he would continue to call me Bocky for a number of years. When he came to visit me at Saint Joe, my new friends asked him why he called me Bocky, so he gladly retold the tale, resulting in several new passengers hopping aboard the Bocky Train.

Now, my mom calls me Bob. She’s actually called me Bob for years, but I’ve just recently come to appreciate it.

It started sometime in the early 90s, when Michael Jordan made the Chicago Bulls unstoppable. My brother, probably around 6 at this time, my mom, my aunt Jen, and I were at the mall looking for “Bulls Stuff,” as my brother called it, for his bedroom. My aunt and I are very close in age, which gave us a sort of camaraderie when it came to teasing Timmy. We were talking about him, making fun of something, and he started to get frustrated that no one was listening to him. He kept saying my name, trying to get me to listen or just shut up, and he finally got so upset that he squeezed his eyes shut, balled up his fists, and inhaled sharply, intending to shout my name so loud it would echo off the shop windows and kiosks. Instead of yelling “Becky,” though, in his aggravation, it came out “Bobky” with about forty exclamation points following. We laughed, he got angrier, but the name never really went away. My mom – and, for a while, my aunt – has faithfully called me Bob, Bobby, or some variation ever since. Timmy denies that this ever happened or that he had any part whatsoever in the creation of the title.

When I was living in Rensselaer, I used to save voicemails from my mom just so I could hear her cheerfully say “Hi, Bobby!” when I was feeling lonely. When I visited, she could tell my footsteps on the deck before I opened the door, and always shouted “Hey, Bob!” from where ever she was in the house. At one point, my dad even started greeting me as Bob on the phone, but I think only because it cracked me up every time he said it.

Now that I’m back at home and seeing my mom every day, she doesn’t call me anything but Bob. Yesterday, she said “Goodnight, Becky,” and we both sort of stopped in our tracks with puzzled looks on our faces, not quite registering what exactly had happened except that whatever it was, it wasn’t right.

I guess it shouldn’t matter what people call you as long as it’s meaningful. My poppy Chuck called me Rebecca; it will never feel right for anyone else to ever call me that. My dad always calls me Beck, even in emails. My grandma calls me Sweetheart, and that will always be hers. My brother has several choice names he uses when he wants to get my attention, but I'm particularly fond of Dump Face.

It’s all about the love, man.


Anonymous said...

To my mom, I've been "Bud" for pretty much my whole life.

Or "Phillip Martin!!!" when I say or do something appalling.

Aunt Becky said...

Dave calls me "Weenis" and I call him "Fuckface."

Tim said...

I can't believe you write stories of such lies.

Anonymous said...

Poor Chuck... my entire family calls him the very unoriginal nickname Chuck-E-Cheese.


Anonymous said...

I'm laughing my ass off right now because there's more than one person with the nickname "Weenis".

Remember when we use the slogan/name generator and came up with "Ahhhhhh.....Weenis!"