We use nicknames to show affection, like Danny for Daniel or Gorgeous for a girlfriend, or to indicate dislike, like The Terminator for a boss. Nowadays, nicknames can even be turned into brand names. What’s really behind a nickname?
It’s about the relationship
We never give nicknames or affective names to people we don’t have any relationship with. So, no nicknames for the cashier or colleague we hardly know. But when we like someone, we may use a nickname to show acceptance or to indicate an inner-circle relationship. So, we will use Lizzie for Elizabeth or Geno for Eugene.
Research has shown that in nearly all successful marriages, couples have affectionate nicknames for each other. It’s like a private code between them – calling each other Sunshine, Honey, Patat, Suikerbekkie, Sweetness, Lover Boy or Handsome.
Nicknames for sports stars can even be turned into brand names and lucrative businesses. A recent court case in the USA involving basketball legend Shaquille (Shaq / The Big Shaqtus) O’Neal highlighted the value of a nickname turned into a brand name when he sued clothing company Shaqtus Orange Clothing. Fans of Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal buy Nike T-shirts with Vamos Rafa (“Let’s go Rafa”) on them.
Nicknames to distinguish you
When Jan van Riebeeck came to the southern tip of Africa in 1652 surnames in Holland had not been legalised yet. Because there were too many people and too few first names, people started to adopt nicknames to distinguish between people with the same names. Many of these nicknames turned into surnames. Hence, we have locational surnames based on where you come from (Van der Merwe – from the “meer” or marshlands), occupational surnames (Visser, Kuiper, Weaver, Taylor), descriptive surnames (Schwartzkopf, Brown, Lombard from “lango bardo” or long beard), and kinship-based surnames (Richardson, Roberts, McAdams, O’Conner where the final s or -son or initial Mac-, Mc-, O’- or Fitz- is added to indicate “belonging to”).
In big families where children are traditionally named after parents and grandparents, all the first names and surnames can get “used up”. When this happens, there could be three or more Dawid Snymans in an extended family of brothers, cousins, uncles and grandfathers. To distinguish between them, friends and family start to add nicknames. The interesting thing is that these nicknames follow the same pattern as surnames: Dawid Bredasdorp (locational nickname), Dawid Snorbaard (descriptive nickname), Dawid Koöperasie (occupational nickname) or Klein Dawid (Dawid’s son Dawid).
In contrast with affective nicknames, negative nicknames are mostly used behind someone’s back. Children can be cruel when it comes to nicknames. Some of these nicknames can stick for years and hinder a child’s social progress. From my school days I remember names like Sausage Lips and Cheap Stores.
An unpopular boss may be called The Terminator because of his hiring and firing management style. It can become like a little power game for employees as in “I get to call you a nasty name while you have to call me by my proper name”.
It’s a cultural thing
We see names like Vollie, Ou Slak, Lady, Hurricane and Indestructible painted on cars, campers and caravans. But what about names on number plates? Do Batman and Nite Rider on a personalised number plate suggest unfinished childhood business?
A recent British study showed that 50% of people in Britain give their cars nicknames. The top ten car nicknames in Britain in 2009 were Bessey, Casper, Lucky, Love Machine, Beauty, Muscles, Buster, Speedie, Moocher and Boomzilla.
What would the top taxi names in South Africa be? We see taxis with names like Lucky, 2fast 2furious, Chicane and Zola. And what about nicknames for fishing boats and holiday homes? It would certainly make for an interesting study on cultural diversity.