Nicknames stick to people, and the most ridiculous are the most adhesive. Thomas Chandler Haliburton – Nova Scotian-Canadian-English politician and author.
Novelist Silviana Wood uses nicknames prodigiously in her writings.
By your leave, I’m going to deviate from political issues such as the Jan. 6 insurrection by the Trump cultists, the Russian war crimes in Ukraine, etc.
Instead, I’m going to wax eloquent on the issue of nicknames. A dear friend – acclaimed, award-winning Chicana playwright, poet, and novelist Silviana Wood – uses nicknames prodigiously in her writings and in her speech. Talking with her got me to thinking about nicknames.
As a relevant aside: I wrote about Silvia a while back. At that time “Barrio Dreams,” her memoirs based on her experiences growing up in Tucson’s Barrio Anita, had just been published (University of Arizona Press). You can read that piece here. [You can order “Barrio Dreams here.] Her novel “La Quinta Soledad del Valle” will be published this fall (Aztlan Libre Press).
Nicknames are universal. Every community has its repertoire of them. I grew up in the working-class Chicano barrio Hollywood in Tucson, Arizona in the 1950s-1960s, and I interacted with people in other barrios. That is the milieu from which I discuss the nicknames herein. I have never seen in writing some of the nicknames I discuss. I have only heard them. I hope my phonetic renditions of them are faithful.
* Within the Chicano community, some nicknames are appendages, as it were, of people’s first names. These include (and this is only a sampling): “Cuco” for Refugio … “Monchi” for Ramón (Raymond) … “Beto” (for the “…erto” names: Roberto, Adalberto, Gilberto, etc.) … “Concha” for Concepción … “Chano” for Feliciano and “Cheno” for Arsenio … “Chavela” (“Chabela”) for Isabela … “Turi” (“Tudy”) for Arturo … “Mague” for Margaret/Margarita … “Chuy” for Jesús … “Yoli” for Yolanda … “Chente” for Vicente, Inocente … “Poncho” (“Ponchi”) for Alfonso, Idelfonso … “Chela” for Graciela, Griselda (and others) … “Queta” for Enriqueta … “Nacho” for Ignacio … “Ceci” for Cecilia.
Space limitations keep me from going on – there are many, many more of these.
Some names and nicknames are gender neutral, that is, they are used for males and females. These include “Lupe” for Guadalupe, “Lola” and “Lolo” for Dolores, and “Trini” for Trinidad.
Among the irreverent, even Jesus Christ had a nickname: “El Mero Chuy,” THE Big Chuy.
A while back, a person from the Dominican Republic told me that Mexicans confuse him with all their nicknames. “Why can’t Jesús just be Jesús?,” he asked. “Why does he also have to be Chuy?”
* Some nicknames were based on physical characteristics. “Chatos” and “Chatas” were pug-nosed … “Gordos” and “Gordas” were on the pudgy side while the “Flacos,” Flacas,” Güilos,” and “Güilas” were on the slim side … “Tuerto” had a lazy eye and “Sambo” was bowlegged … “Güeros,” and “Güeras” were light-skinned … “Sapo” had what appeared to be bulging eyes … “Zurdo” was left-handed … one of my informants relates that his father talked of a man nicknamed “Cuervo” because his hair was super black ….
Silvia, whose nickname was “Flaca,” aka “Güila,” notes that kids (whom she refers to as “playground bards”) came up with little rhyming (usually nonsensical) ditties for some nicknames. In her case it was “Güila seca sin manteca” [Dry skinny one has no lard (fat).] One of her brothers was “Güero,” which gave rise to “Güero, güerinche, mata la chinche!” [Light-skinned one kills the bedbug.]
* Certain behaviors also gave rise to nicknames. “El Tartamudo” was a chronic stutterer … an informant’s father spoke of a person nicknamed “La Bicicleta” because when he walked, he lifted his legs more than normal and of a woman nicknamed “Nueve Columnas” after a local newspaper with nine columns because she always seemed to know the goings-on before anyone else … another informant relates that a gossipy classmate was dubbed “La KTKT” (this was the teens’ favorite Tucson radio station in the 1950s-1960s) …
* Nicknames are also rooted in states of being. “El Güacho” (“La Güacha”) were recently arrived from Mexico … … “El Ruso” was of Russian descent … “El Italiano” was of Italian descent.
* Some nicknames are conferred by one’s family and don’t have an overt public connotation: “Baby,” “Boy.” “Honey,” “Maromas,” “Buster,” “Piqua (Picka), “Lye,” “Boxy,” “Cliquo” (Clicko), “Bootsy,” “Vavas.” Some nicknames were institutionalized – i.e., even the schoolteachers used them in their class rosters.
Are nicknames harmful?
Nicknames can be hurtful. Nurse-teacher Marlene Ritchie says they can also be harmful. In “The Social Effects of Nicknames” (Child Research Net, January 22, 2010) Ritchie posits that a nickname reflects how others view the nicknamed person and can come to mirror how that person sees himself/herself. By their very nature, nicknames are exclusionary, Ritchie maintains, in that they separate people from the “in-group” (e.g., a cohort of classmates, circle of neighborhood pals, etc.).
Ritchie describes different ways children react to nicknames. If the nickname involves something that can be changed, some nicknamed people try to make the change (e.g., an overweight person may set out to lose weight). People with non-derogatory nicknames – e.g., “Zurdo” (Lefty), “Curly” (he/she has curly hair) – accept the nickname and go along with it. Others may internalize the negative connotation of a nickname and develop an inferiority complex. [More on nicknames’ impact on people below.]
Ritchie counsels teachers and other care-givers to pay attention to the group dynamics, to how nicknamed children respond to a nickname and whether the name-givers are bullying or just being insensitive, etc.
The theory of mind…
That children can be cruel is pretty much an accepted truism. Some of the above nicknames – e.g., “Gordo/a” (fatso), “Tuerto”(lazy eye), “Sambo” (bowlegged) – are quite cruel. Were the children being intentionally cruel when they conferred these, and other similar nicknames, on their peers? Maybe (probably?) not.
Clinical Psychologist Camillo Zacchia (in “The Real Reason Kids Can Be So Cruel,” HuffPost, Mar. 4, 2017) explains that young children are in the process of making sense of the world around them and have no idea yet about what is, and what is not, proper to say. As they make observations (e.g., someone looks overweight), they are oblivious to the impact those observations may have on others. The ability to imagine what another person would think or feel is known as the theory of mind. Per Dr. Zacchia, as a rule, children in the early grades have not fully developed it yet. Hence their willingness to nickname their peers.
So, how’d they turn out?
I didn’t keep up with all the nicknamed people from my childhood. As for those I did keep up with, most graduated high school, some went to college, others joined the military. They built careers in a multitude of fields, ranging from construction workers to youth counselors/social workers, and everything in between.
I asked some nicknamed people who went on to lead what would be considered good, normal lives if their nicknames affected them negatively. One said she conditioned herself not to cry or be overtly emotional because the nickname that was thrust on her implied being stoic. The stutterer (“El Tartamudo”) didn’t like his nickname because, “I can’t control the stuttering – it just happens.” As a stutterer myself, I empathize with him. [It occurs to me that I escaped being nicknamed “El Tartamudo” because it was already taken.]
These and similar responses make the point that just because a nicknamed person went on to lead what would be considered a good and normal life does not mean he or she did not experience pain or distress due to the nickname.
In summary, some nicknames are “built into” our names. Others are simply descriptive and neutral. But those based on physical features or behaviors, etc., can be hurtful and harmful. We need to be more judicious about conferring and using such nicknames and teach our children and grandchildren to be also. c/s
Copyright 2022 by Salomon Baldenegro. Special Thanks to Silviana “Silvia” Wood for her inspiration, her spirited and instructive conversations, and her assistance. Special Thanks to University of Arizona Distinguished Professor Emeritus Celestino Fernández for his assistance. Cover of Barrio Dreams used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law.You can reach Sal at: email@example.com