At some point, when I was in grad school, I learned an activity where a person introduces themselves and shares their full name, how they got their name, nicknames, etc. It’s one that I’ve continued to use throughout my working life when I’m forming a group — most frequently with my orientation staff. Some folks approach the activity with great fervor. Their name has a lot of meaning behind it and they embrace it. Others get up and share, but are rather timid in their approach, showing a little bit of a lack of pride in their name. It’s never easy to predict who will take which approach, but there are always several who take each approach. I always feel it gives me some insight into the person’s history and the way in which she or he views herself or himself.
When I share my name, I have a lot of pride with it. My name comes from my mother and an aunt. My name has a 9-8-7 in number of letters from first name to last name. I also share several nicknames that I have had throughout my life, starting with Gwenny Benny Static (2nd grade) and moving all the way to Face (grad school). Most of my nicknames are a spin off of Gwen, i.e. Gwennifer, Gwenjamin, G-dubs, etc. However, by and large, throughout my life I’ve been known as Gwen.
I know nicknames are a form of endearment and might reflect something specific about my relationship with folks. One of my sisters and I refer to each other by our relationship. It’s not uncommon that when we call each other, our greeting is “Hey Sister,” in the same way our mom and dad are referred to as that.
In the last several years, as I’ve entered my professional life, I’ve noted some interesting aspects of the nickname. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students with whom I work almost always attach themselves to Face, because it’s pretty amusing, and when I share how that nickname came to be, I like to think it reminds them of their close friends as well. However, for my colleagues, many of them have attached themselves to Gwenny or Gwennie (depending on how they spell it). Of the several nicknames I’ve had, it’s intriguing to me that this didn’t come about until my professional life. A lot of people lose the “y/ie” at the end of their name as they move into professional life and mine has just now come about.
For the first couple of years, I wondered whether this was an age-thing. A way to reinforce that I was younger. As someone who has incredibly high amounts of respect for authority and hierarchy, I now question whether these nicknames are sometimes used to subtly remind folks of their place. I’m not bothered when my doctoral colleagues call me Gwenny. For several members of the cohort, we have a variety of nicknames, and it seems like it’s a way to support each other and recognize our community. But,most of the time, nicknames demonstrate a level of affection or a level of appreciation for the relationship between two people. However, it is also noteworthy to recognize the ways in which and the individuals with whom we are invited to use a nickname.
All of this is to say that language is important. And names are tied to identity.