Nick-nicknames

Stained glass window depicting the Holy Family in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Dili, East Timor. Photo: Kok Leng Yeo / CC BY
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by Jake Frost

In our family, we have so many nicknames that our nicknames now have nicknames of their own — we call them “nick-nicknames.” Such as “umpkins” — it’s a word we use to refer to all the kids collectively, as in: “Hey! You umpkins settle down in there!” That particular nick-nickname began life as “little pumpkins,” got shortened to “pumpkins,” and ultimately became “umpkins.” Come to think of it, it’s just one more contraction away from “kin.” Maybe that’s the actual etymology of the real word kin? Maybe it’s pumpkin-based speech to refer to all the gourds sprouting from a common vine in one ancestral garden patch?


Not that the evolution of nicknames moves only in one direction, ever shortening, endlessly simplifying. No, they can also expand, multiplying in syllables, gaining accretions of complexity, and being augmented with ornamentation and new rhetorical flourishes as times goes on. Thus was one of our daughter’s nick-nicknames created: Stephie-Ba-Dephie-Ba-Doodle-Apple-Strudel. I know it sounds like it would be too long to serve as an effective nickname, but the alliteration, onomatopoeia, and rhyming actually allow it to flow mellifluously and quickly off the tongue as a syncopated whole, melding into one balanced, bouncing, well-cadenced word. It came about as a series of additions to “Steph”: Steph → Stephie → Stephie-Ba-Dephie → Stephie-Ba-Dephie-Ba-Doodle → StephieBa-Dephie-Ba-Doodle-Apple Strudel. And it may have kept growing if it hadn’t reached the outer limits of what you can comfortably say in one breath.

“Christ in the House of His Parents” by John Everett Millais (1829–1896). Photo: Public Domain

Some of our kids have gotten possessive about certain nicknames. One daughter took me aside to tell me, “Dad, I like it when you call me Sugar Plum Fairy.” So now that’s her special nickname. Another is partial to “Wild Green Onion” — and that difference tells you all you need to know about their personalities.

There are a whole bunch of other nicknames in common usage around our house: Cutie and its derivatives (such as Cutie-Pa-Tootie, Little Cutie, Cutie Pie, Q-tip, et cetera), Chimichanga Belly, Little Man, Sassafras, Pip and its offshoots (such as Pipsi, as in Pepsi), and Piparoni (as in pepperoni), Pippopotamus, Rapscallions, Poonka-Poonka … and a long list of other nonsensical words whose genealogy of historical development can no longer be traced with any certainty, their origins being now lost in the mists of chaos which so often envelops life with small children.

Our kids may never learn their real names. It never starts out so messy. I always begin with calling the children by their full given names. Only with time do these simple and easy-to-follow appellations mutate into nursery rhymes gone horribly wrong. So it was when our newest child, David, was born. I was calling him “David,” which all the other children found odd and unsatisfactory. Steph tried to come up with a good nickname for Davy-D (as he has since come to sometimes be known) and auditioned them for the rest of the family. “Those are all good, Honey Dumpling,” I told Steph as she tried one possibility after another. “But sometimes you just have to let a nickname develop naturally on its own.”

Painting in Bethlehem, West Bank, of the Holy Family. Photo: Paul Prescott/Shutterstock

And then Steph asked me: “Did Jesus have a nickname?” Huh. I was stumped. I’d never thought of it before, but as I considered the question, I couldn’t think of any reason why not. “You know,” I finally concluded, “Jesus probably did have a nickname.Most parents tend to have nicknames for their kids, so I’ll bet Mary and Joseph had nicknames for Jesus.” “What were they?” she wanted to know. “That, I have no idea,” I told her. “I don’t even know how we started calling you Rinka-Tinka, let alone have a guess as to what nicknames Mary and Joseph may have had for Jesus.” It may be a private matter anyway, just between Jesus and Mary and Joseph, intended to remain within the sacred circle of the family.

But the whole idea of it reminded me of the reality of the Incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” ( John 1:14). God became man, really, truly man. To come and live among us, as one of us. And all to save us — because he loves us that much (see Philippians 2:6-8). No wonder the angels in the heavens above proclaimed the glory of God at the miracle of Christmas! “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).

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