By Stephanie Schaeffer Silverman
It was just your average weekend afternoon—a lazy day of random chores and a board game that we actually all enjoy (Rummikub).
“C’mon Flanka, could you take any more time?” one of my sons said to the other as he not so patiently waited his turn (surely to go “out” and win the game).
“Enough, Shwamba, I’m making my move,” he retorted.
My husband jumped in, and before he could complete the first word, one of them said, “Stay out of it, Chewy.”
We’ve had silly nicknames for all of the kids since birth—Cleetus, Splunk, Laineybird, Birdy, Cookie, Birdress, Rylo, Skooch, Skooch-Ma-Gooch, Goh-Gee—and they’ve had their own for us— Poof, Dooma, Foo-mico, Fooma, Nemo, Meeno. It’s endless and ridiculous, and it’s fascinating to me which nicknames stick.
Growing up, my sister and I babysat for the same family. She passed down the job to me when she left for college in 1983, and to this day, we call each other by “variations” of the names of that family. They talked about their cousins incessantly; they all had these crazy names like Srilly, Osna – which we promptly shortened to Lilly and Fosna (eventually Fosi).
In fact, it wasn’t until my kids were teens that they found out my sister’s real name.
I remember it pretty clearly. One of the cousins randomly said, “You know my mom’s name is Suzanne—not Lilly.”
“Ha ha,” said my oldest, as if it were the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard.
“No really, Zach—her name is Suzanne. I swear,” said Ben, who was 9 at the time.
“Wait, what? Her name isn’t Lilly?” my oldest (then 14) asked, eyeing me like I had stolen his birthright.
“Yeah, Ben’s right—it’s actually Suzanne,” I said, as I finished setting the table, completely unrattled by the inquisition.
“Then why the heck do we call her Aunt Lilly?”
“Yeah, it’s a long story. I’ve called her that since I was little. I never call her Suzanne.”
I remember the look on his face—the way he looked at my sister, as if seeing her for the first time.
I kind of felt bad about it—mainly because I hadn’t even given it any thought that what I call her would be the name my kids would call her. It got me thinking, why do we call each other by silly nicknames?
“As humans we are programmed to respond to affection and kindness—just like the family pet,” according to the Irish psychotherapist Sinead Lynch.
Oh—the family pet. The one we call Dippie, Fla-riopey, Plastic, Little Boo-Boo, Sauce? Yeah, her name is Moxie.
The explanation, in an article in the Irish Examiner I found online (thank you Google), continued: “One way to connect with someone is to create a ‘pet’ or nickname for them. A name that says ‘I know this person’.”
I call my brother-in-law Steversville (Stephen), my oldest and only niece (the one who made me an aunt has to have a special name) Flayva-Flay (Faye), my middle darling nephew, Willy Vanilly (Will), and my youngest cutie pie nephew, Bennifer (Ben).
It’s true. It’s my way of saying I know this person.
But probably the most telling of the research said this: “Nicknames give us a chance to lighten the mood and show people that we are up for a laugh.”
Anyone who knows me knows that’s my bottom line—always up for a laugh (even when it is far from appropriate).
So, I will continue using silly nicknames shamelessly, and know that someday, I will be sitting around with my children and grandchildren as they play games with Uncle Splunk, Aunt Birdy, and Uncle Cleetus—until someone tells them their real names.
Stephanie Schaeffer Silverman is publisher of Your Teen Magazine.