The power of names and nicknames

child sitting on a ram in front of an old army tent
Robin the tomboy about to become Rachel the ewe lamb: the summer before high school

To name a child is brave,
or foolhardy; even now it shakes me.
Lauris Edmond

How many names and nicknames have you had? Have they stuck, do they still work for you? I had a baby nickname, a kid nickname, a couple nickname, and a wife nickname. I’m wondering whether they still hold some truths, some messages for me as I blunder towards the void. If I talk about these nicknames, maybe you’ll be thinking about your own…

But when I think about them, one inescapable truth astonishes me: all my names and nicknames were given to me by other people. None of my names or nicknames were actively chosen by me or even endorsed by me, except for adopting and keeping my husband’s surname, and even those were default decisions. A name plays a powerful part in building your identity, especially when the name-callers have strong opinions about the kind of person they believe or want you to be.

Who am I—a person who accepts and conforms with barely a twitch? Looking back, I think maybe so.

Baby Jigger jigs on forever

As a new baby I was Jigger, so-called by my big sister Jill, because I never stopped jigging and jumping. My mother pinned me into a sleeping bag and pinned the sleeping bag to the mattress of the pram, and still I jumped right out of the pram at the ripe old age of three weeks. Does Jigger still work as a nickname for me today at seventy-eight? Possibly, when I go prancing and even jumping around the dance floor. And possibly not, as I am lazy for much of the day.

Robin a-bobbin’—wistful hint of a former self

This nickname was discarded for Robin, and so I was Robin Taylor all through primary school. Why? The story goes that I could not be a Rachel, because a Rachel was mature, a grown-up woman. They said I was a tomboy, running wild, up trees and in creeks, grubby and fearless and happy outside. (All this is relative, of course—I had my partners in crime.) I was forever making huts up trees, under hedges or in the fowl house.

How does Robin work today for me? Robin Taylor is a delightful name, round and cheerful and honest, don’t you think? And the South Island robin is very cute and it hops around your feet as you walk through the forest stirring up insects—a wild bird that poses as tame for the sake of dinner. I love little Robin Taylor but I think of her as someone from my past.

I carried on making huts and homes in unsuitable places for much of my adult life, but today I look through windows at Wellington’s Green Belt from within the solid enclosure of an apartment. I do love a brisk walk to the top of a hill, but I prefer a strong roof  that does not leak. Nobody would call me a tomboy today, although perhaps I have remnants of rebellion.

As a child I rejected the very idea of being a woman, I wasn’t having a bar of it, and when the symptoms appeared, I was wracked with horror. (Some years later I grew into my destiny as a woman, even embracing it with a certain glee.)

A dignified first name is imposed on an unsuitable child

B&W photo of 11-year-old Rachel in Christchurch Girls High School uniform
Hair cut, school uniform: the day Robin became Rachel. Mission: get some dignity!

My parents believed that I wasn’t dignified enough for a Rachel. When I was about to start secondary school, my godmother stepped in. “Why do you call her Robin? She has her own name, a fine name, and that’s what she should be called.” She, whose own name was Phyllis, won the battle. I was not consulted.

So I had to stop being my own self and become somebody else’s construct of me. The new me had her long blond plaits cut off, wore an ugly gym tunic, spent her days scuttling around a scary corridors full of tall strangers, and had to answer to a spiky new name.

What sort of a person was a Rachel? I was a grubby talky precocious little blonde kid and the only other Rachel in my entire world was a tall Plymouth Brethren girl at school, with a heavy black plait roping down her back: a quiet, calm, grown-up woman who was always clean and tidy. In other words, an alien. And this was to be my role model? Apparently Rachel meant a ewe lamb: luckily I could identify with that instead—running around sheep paddocks was normal behaviour. Baa!

So Rachel was my grown-up name: I had to grow into it. That’s odd, isn’t it? Usually a name grows around a child and the two become one. But Rachel still didn’t fit, apparently, because at university my future husband’s friends called me Tosh, while he called me Pud. Tosh was half of Mac ’n’ Tosh, and Pud was—perhaps my shape, perhaps my cooking? I quite enjoyed these marks of affection at the time. Do they still apply to me? Not on your Nelly.

To the rest of the world I have been Rachel McAlpine ever since.

Switching from patronymic to maritonymic

What? McAlpine? In 1959 a bride’s identity was swallowed by her husband’s: we took their surnames at the altar without blinking. When Grant and I got divorced twenty years later, I looked aghast at that custom. If only I had remained one of the Taylor girls, or renamed myself McTaylor, or Taypine, or Celia!

Too late. By D-day I had been McAlpine for more than half my life, and my four children were McAlpines, and my first three books of poems had been published—as an author I was already Rachel McAlpine. It all seemed far too complicated so I chose to keep my married name forever. I’ve put my mark on McAlpine: I’ve earned it. I know I’m Rachel McAlpine and I’ve grown to like the balance and pointiness of these two words.

Many years later, the role that I’m resisting is that of an old person who happens to be a woman. Another round of forcible growing up is in process. So maybe I need a new name for this phase; how about Griselda Old?

32 thoughts on “The power of names and nicknames

  1. Interesting! I’ve thought a lot about my name and its attendant problems over the years. My mother chose the spelling because she thought it then couldn’t be shortened to Anne or Anna. Hah – kids don’t care about the spelling, just the sound, so I was Annie for a lot of my schooldays. It could also be made, by the same kids, to rhyme with my surname – Ana-bel Mitch-ell – which was a major factor in deciding to take my husband’s name. It sounded better. Shallow, I know! Finally, after many years of accepting any spelling of Anabel, the Internet age made it important to correct people again. Otherise I’m lost to google. It’s a nuisance – though if I were Spanish speaking my spelling would be perfectly normal.

    1. How personal all these issues are. Anne of Green Gables told everyone she was Anne with an E. Even the simplest name has variable spelling these days. Good point about the internet!

  2. Good Morning Griselda Old, how goes it?! 😉 Interesting thoughts about names that ring true with me. I’ve had a few names and nicknames over the years, and am most comfortable with my blogging nom de plume, Ally Bean. Yes, it’s a nickname– writ large.

    1. You have embraced your nickname—way to go! I am not so enchanted with Griselda yet. Aybrow and Wachel amuse me: two nom de plumes (noms de plume) for blogging. And I forgot to mention Fishface, which has zero appeal.

  3. Rachel was my maternal grandmother’s name. I I think I tend to picture all Rachels in her terms – sorry. I do think it works better than Griselda. Hold off on that until you’re truly Old.

    1. I wish I had met your grandmother Rachel instead of silent statue Rachel in my youth. Later there was another Rachel who even had my surname: Elizabeth Taylor took Rachel for her Jewish name. What a relief.

  4. “Humanity at large is almost always drawn to the infantile comfort of having an external authority make all the decisions.”

    ~ Erich Fromm.

    And among all the external authorities that one is forced to live with, one’s name having been chosen by someone else is the most cruel. One simply goes through a lifetime being called something that someone else thought most appropriate. How many people do you know who think that their names are most inappropriate? In India, every newspaper, every day, publishes a number of advertisements in the personal columns announcing the change of names as a prerequisite to officially getting the new name registered for all legal purposes.

    “Until I was thirteen, I thought my name was SHUT UP.”

    ~ Joe Namath

    1. Wow, how interesting. Trouble is, surely we change and change through life, so it is hard to pick one name that works perfectly through life. “To name a child is brave,/or foolhardy; even now it shakes me.” Lauris Edmond.

  5. What?! Robin isn’t a dignified name? I take umbrage at that. But immediately retract – takes too much energy. You could be called far worse things than Rachel. I’ve always liked that name. Maybe I’ll trade it for Robyn.

      1. Why question the Y? A silly affectation in my book. I used to hate my name as a child. Especially because it dragged behind it another silly handle attached by a hyphen. Now I’ve grown comfortable with Robyn. I wonder what it would be like to be a Griselda for a while?

  6. I believe it is mandatory today for names to be peppered with H’s and K’s in unlikely positions. Pity the poor teachers and the children who will waste years of their lives spelling their names for others.

    1. My mother used to refer scathingly to newly coined names as “racehorse names” — yet I suspect it was ever thus. My sister Deirdre could never give her name without laboriously spelling it. I always had to specify “Robin with an i not a y” and “RachEL not RachAEL”. Everyone thinks they spell their name correctly, even if they have agonised over legitimate alternatives such as Lindsey and Lindsay 🙂

  7. My brother called me Wendy the White Witch, quite a lot of effort for him and probably says a lot about my childhood self. My favourite nickname is Wendy Lou. All my aunts called me this and now there are so few of them still with us that I seldom hear it so it’s very special indeed. I called all my nieces and nephews Horace when they were little. There were just so many names to remember, it was much easier. 🙂

  8. That’s quite the tongue twister. How do you feel when new acquaintances call you Wendy Lou—OK, or invaded? I wish I’d thought of Horace for the multiple nephews and nieces.

  9. Names are troublesome things. I for one never liked my name. It sounds harsh and cold, nor does it roll off the tongue nicely. If only my mother had thought to put an ‘a’ on the end of it, like her own, it would have softened it a little.
    Nor can I claim a nickname. I guess I wasn’t the kind of person to inspire one … not even ‘Jo’.

    1. Isn’t it strange? We could change our names as adults and I’ve read that this is common practice in India. But take heart: I just heard a man in a podcast say that even his own family called him by his full name: James Ward!

      1. Now that’s just odd!

        I’ve often wondered about people who have names that are a single syllable and whether they are more inclined to have nicknames. Two syllables seems to be more appealing and I wonder if that’s what happened to poor James Ward … although Jimmy or Jamie would be more common.

      2. I wonder. The sound of a name is a critical feature. I think “James Ward” is a splendid name 🙂 He features in the Boring Talks podcast, great for sending you to sleep btw.

  10. What a lovely post, I really enjoyed reading it. Ive never thought of names in that way before although Im Alison and ive always loved it when im affectionately call Ali. Im soon to be a grandma and having to decide on a name for myself and also in anticipation of what the parents will call my first grandchild. I hope I approve.

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