A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.

The Power of The Name

Many authors find it difficult to name characters. It’s not just a case of finding a name you haven’t used before; it has to be consistent with the person’s age, region, class, &c.

My names normally come very quickly, but in my novel The Government Artist, it took weeks to find the right moniker. The main character is a man born in 1943 who could potentially have gone to Oxford University. His name became Malcolm St Clement, which has a certain easy rhythm and suggests he’s from a fairly well-off family. But what about the names given by peers rather than parents?

In the TV series NCIS, Dr Donald Mallard is universally known as Ducky, an affectionate term that plays on his first and last names. By contrast, Agent Gibbs is the boss, and addressed only by his last name as a mark of respect. The only exception is Ducky, who is allowed to say Jethro. It implies the two have a relationship that predates Gibbs’s appointment, and perhaps his tolerance of being addressed so informally is a mark of his own respect to Ducky.

It can also speak volumes about a character whose nickname is not used, at least not to his or her face. In another of my books, Fifty Million Nicker, Josh “Speedy” Rush works in an office where affectionate titles are given to everyone. However, his colleague calls himself Pressure Pete as he’s proud of his harsh sales tactics. Nobody else calls him this, preferring to use names that range from Pete the Pain to Pete the Prick. One of their bosses is also unkindly known as Tart, taken from her first name Flanella.

In a few cases, the nickname can say more about the person who bestowed it than the recipient. I have a real-life example from people I knew a few years ago, so I’ll have to change the actual names used. Person 1 was called Callum, but Person 2 had only just met him and struggled to remember his name. One day, P2 accidentally called him Logan. Even though this was an isolated mistake and he finally learnt Callum’s correct name, P2 continued to nickname him Logan, trying to make it catch on. He persisted for three years, and nobody else ever used it.

If there is one name I should use more often, it’s Jeffery Archer. I don’t know exactly why, but last week’s post gained twice as many views as normal. Do keep it up.