Thoughts on Names and Nicknames

Since my retirement and return to this special place we call home, I have renewed acquaintances with old friends from high school whom I hadn’t seen in many decades. This appears to have presented a number of them with the dilemma of whether to call me by my given name Richard, or my nickname Dick.

It is a nickname I acquired in college some 50 years ago. Later, when I was illustrating children’s books, it was more friendly on a book cover than Richard but too casual when I taught at college where I reverted to my more formal given name. Except for the time I wrote a condolence to a bereaved neighbor’s family on a funeral home website and it was rejected because they thought my name had … shall I say … a negative connotation, it has served me well.

Anyway, all this confusion has me thinking about all the names and nicknames I encountered during my life. Most people don’t need to know too many names, but teachers especially have to memorize hundreds over the course of a school year just to avoid confusion. No kid likes to be called “Hey, you” or “What’s your name back there?”

So names are important to teachers. I’ve known colleagues who spent their entire summer vacations memorizing the names of next year’s students. I recall memorization is a part of the Teacher Competency Test, so knowing your students’ names is certainly a skill teachers need to master. My own kids are grown, so I pretty much have their names memorized. Their appearance has changed but, so far, they’ve kept their names.

You run into some pretty peculiar names in a class room. I recall I had one student named Jorritsma. I’d never heard of that one. Another was named Linnea. I’d never heard of it either, though I think it is a pretty name. Some names you just don’t hear of anymore. When I was about 8 years old, I had a friend named Norbert. He had a newspaper route and I used to help him deliver his papers. I’d carry the bag while he … hey, I recall old Norbert was quite a large fellow. Perhaps I was not helping him voluntarily. But, I digress.

I’ll bet you don’t know a single person named Norbert … large or small, and, I dare say never have. I wonder, if he’s still around today, whether he’s called Norb or Norby or Bert. Norbert is one of those old-fashioned names parents just don’t name their babies today. Names like Clyde, or Durwood, or Rudolph, or Albert. Come to think of it, you probably know an Albert. My father’s name was Albert, though everyone called him Al. I don’t recall anyone ever calling him Bert.

The only Berts I can think of are Bert Parks, the old host of the Miss America Pageant and that character who lives with Ernie on Sesame Street. I wonder if their real names might be Norbert. Or, Bertram. There’s another name you don’t often hear … Bertram Russell, the famous philosopher not-with-standing (did his friends call him Bert?) … I can’t think of another Bertram I know.

I’m surprised I never ran into a Sylvester in a classroom. Sylvester Stallone’s mother knew a good name when she heard one, and he’s a big action hero who some young parent surely would want to name their kid after. I wonder if his mother named him after that black and white cat who chased the canary in the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Stallone’s nickname is “Sly.” Do you think his high school friends still call him Sylvester?

My mother’s name was Pearl. She was named after Pearl White, an old movie actress … I think, who came before Pearl Bailey the singer and Pearl Buck the writer. They are the only Pearls I know of. My mother had a cousin named Palmiela, but that probably doesn’t count because it’s an ethnic name … it’s Portuguese. Can you imagine teaching a class with Jorrritsma, Durwood, Rudolph, Clyde, Bertram, Albert, Sylvester, Pearl, Palmiela and Norbert all together. At least you wouldn’t have to wonder which of the five Amys, four Allisons and three Jons would respond when you called their name. That little exercise would be a competency test in itself.

When I couldn’t remember students’ names, I’d just called them Smiley. I hope my friends resolve their dilemma soon. I’m happy to answer to either Richard or Dick. Just don’t call me Smiley.

By Dick Morgado


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