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The Social Effects of Nicknames

Summary:
A nickname reflects how others view the person named and comes to mirror how that person sees himself/herself. Nicknames can affect a child's self-esteem positively or negatively. Care-givers should observe the group dynamics, how the child responds to a nickname and whether the name-givers are bullying or covering up feelings of inferiority.

Keywords:
nickname, given name, image, self-esteem, derogatory, flattering, group dynamics
Pals called one of my friends "Mini-Arab" and later "Mini." (He had Middle Eastern parents and was shorter than his brother.) My friend Angela was called "Angie;" Edgar was called "Bud," probably to differentiate him from his father who was also Edgar; Norman was "Buster" relating to his husky size; and my nickname was "Wheaties," which referred to the cereal advertised as "the breakfast of champions," because I was inept at sports, always one of the last to be chosen for a team, and had remarked, to cheer up another rejected classmate, that we didn't eat enough Wheaties. Though at first I didn't like my nickname, I discovered that when a team captain called out, "I'll take Wheaties," I was welcomed to the group with cheers. I felt accepted into the inner circle of friends because of my sense of humour, if not for a talent in sports. But the boy who was called "Piggy" because he was fat, and the girl who was called "Four Eyes" because she wore thick glasses couldn't have felt welcomed into a friendly group. A nickname comes to stand for how we see ourselves. Those derogatory nicknames must have zapped their confidence and self-esteem and been devastating to their development.

The given name parents call their child carries with it stereotypical associations that will last a lifetime. Several studies have researched attributes that are associated with Western given names. Nicknames, on the other hand, reflect how others see the person. Nicknames originate within small groups and become very powerful symbols of how the child is viewed within that circle. Among children, nicknames often form a secret relationship where the nickname is known only within the group (Morgan, 15). When my sister and I did our household chores together, we called each other "Susie." At no other time was this bonding name employed. My friend Joan's father called her "Loraine," the name he had wished to christen her.

Nicknames originate from different points of view: 1) A quality, for example "Sugar" (sweet). 2) An incident, as was the case with "Wheaties." 3) A verbal analogy, in Japan my name Marlene was transposed to "Maagarin," (margarine in Japanese). 4) Physical attributes, "Slim" (tall and thin) or "Noppo" (tall in Japanese). 5) Animal or other associations, Jackie Amos became "Mosquito," and someone with protruding eyes became "Tombo" (Dragon fly in Japanese). 6) A folk or popular character, Donald became "Duck" for Donald Duck, "Genji" (playboy in Japanese). 7) Rhyming words, Harris became "Paris." 8) Adding a suffix or prefix, as "ie" became Jackie. 9) An abbreviation of the name, Daniel became "Dan," Ishikawa became "Ishi." (Japanese). (Morgan, 31-35; 120-123)

A study conducted by Albert Mehrabian and Marlena Pierce in 1993 found that "given names were ranked high on the attributes of success and morality and thought more suitable (than nicknames) for business and professional settings. In turn, nicknames were ranked high on the attributes of cheerfulness and popularity." The choice of names people go by is not fixed. A person may use his given name in business settings and use his nickname in social settings.

The name-giver assumes a role of power in the group, and bullies are often quick to take advantage of that position. Nicknames connote a deviation from the usual, and thus they separate those who are in the group and those who are outside the group. Children realize when their nicknames are offensive (Morgan 57). What do children do when they dislike their nickname? Morgan (75) wrote: "They refuse to acknowledge the name, they openly retaliate, and they ignore the difference or try to change their name and presentation." For example, the child may become withdrawn, refuse to participate in the group; they may fashion a name for the name-giver, as when the black child nicknamed "Chocolate Drop" began to call the white child "Ice Cream." They accept the name and come to realize that anything you say or hear often enough loses its strangeness and associated stigma. The power of the derogatory name fades as it becomes common, and the name falls from use. The child may realize that the name-giver was assuming power to cover up his feeling of inferiority. The child called "Fatty" may lose weight to fix the impression he makes. In Morgan's examples, Priscilla thought her name sounded snooty, but she wanted to be known as someone fun to be with. She announced that she wanted to be called "Cilla," which to her suggested a girl who was outgoing.

The assigned nickname can be flattering. My grade school friend with long golden curls liked being called "Goldie Locks," and the captain of a track team liked being called "Speed." Morgan (91) wrote that a nickname can give the child confidence. A responder to a study was quoted: "It is pleasant to have a name which I felt I had in some way earned or merited, as opposed to one that you are given at birth."

Parents, teachers and coaches should note each child's reaction to his/her nickname and explore how the child feels about the moniker. They should observe the group dynamics. There is a likelihood that the name-giver may feel inferior and choose to call children around him by derogatory names to make himself feel superior to them. He may be the one with a problem of poor self-image and require help to improve it. Some schools do not allow nicknames. A nickname can have a positive or a negative effect on the child.


References:
Morgan, Jane, O'Neill, Christopher and Harre', Rom (1979). Nicknames: Their Origins and Social Consequences. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Mehrabian, Albert & Piercy, Marlena (1993). "Differences in Positive and Negative Connotations of Nicknames and Given Names." Journal of Psychology, October 1, 1993.


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