Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Nickname Game

Some of the world’s countries are nickname countries. Everybody gets one, and then everyone else forgets what that person’s name was in the first place. Brazil is like that. Would anyone like to tell me what Pele’s birth name was? His mom probably remembers, but the average Brazilian soccer fan never knew it in the first place.

South East Asia seems to be a nickname neighborhood in general. Growing up and raising a family in New York and Los Angeles I had Filipino friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and usually I knew them only by their nickname. Ace; Lucky; Junior; Jun! Thailand is a nickname country, big time. As in Brazil, one’s actual name is only seen on official documents. It’s an odd phenomenon in a way, because it leads to unnecessary duplication.

Let’s say a girl’s name is Orapan. She might be the only girl in her school whose name is Orapan, and she will almost certainly be the only girl in her class named Orapan, every school year. Thais have an amazing variety of names. Names are alphabetized by the first name here, and any list of names will contain only a few duplications. This holds true for lists of several hundred names. Family names are even more various. It’s only a bit over one hundred years ago that Thais were ordered by the King to come up with a name for their family, and the directive was that every family must have a different last name. Up to that time, most Thais only had one official name. (Something similar is still the case in most of Indonesia.) Considering these facts, any combination of first and family names will probably be the only example of that person’s name in Thailand right now, or maybe ever. There is no need therefore for middle names in Thailand, and the practice is almost unknown.  

But our little Orapan will have a nickname, like everyone else in Thailand, and everyone will call her by her nickname. Many of the nicknames are very common, so if her nickname is “Goong” (Shrimp), there are likely to be three Goongs in her class alone, and at least twenty in the school.

America is a very different story. I knew quite a few guys with nicknames growing up. Many of them got the nickname because they had the same first name as their father. Most, though, were given nicknames because within their circle of friends there were a few boys with the same name. The names repeat so quickly in America. Even in my small circle of teenage friends there were three guys named “Bill.” One was almost always referred to by both his first and family names. He got this honor because his family name was very short. This Bill could also be called “the Eye,” because he would sometimes give you a look where he turned his face slightly to his left, narrowed his left eye, and focused on you with his right eye while opening it as wide as possible.

Another of our Bills was called by his middle name, which he hated. As was the custom in Queens at that time, upon discovering what his middle name was, and that he hated it, we called him that from then on. In Queens, that’s a sign of affection. The third was called sometimes by first and last name, and sometimes by a nickname that was ironic and that rhymed with his family name. I won’t include it here, in case he reads this.

I suppose that all of this comes under the heading of “so what?” It is my blessing and my curse to find almost everything interesting. This is the main reason that I am never bored. I’m not even sure what boredom would feel like. There are always things to read, write about, and observe, and I find most of those things to be interesting. On balance, I find this tendency to be beneficial. 

1 comment:

PWinn said...

True story: My younger brother had a fried named Ed. I’ve known him since we were kids. In our twenties he showed up at our house and my brother greeted him “hey Dave”. ? Dave? I had no idea Ed was his nickname, he used to imitate Ed Sullivan when he was a little kid and it stuck! Other interesting nicknames “Scull” for a kid who hit his head and said “Oh my skull” and it stuck; Fetus, for a kid who used to lie down in that position when he drank too much (yes that stuck too). Another was Tippy (for the obvious reason). Our family nick name was Winnie (last name Winn); but my younger brother’s friends had a system to not mix us up: He was Winnie, I was Old Winnie, my older brother was Old-Old Winnie, my other younger brother was Young Winnie and my youngest brother was Young-Young Winnie (or Young-Young for short). People are weird.