Nicknames are one of those odious features of American life that we’re saddled with against our will. Someone decides “To hell with the name your parents gave you, the name you might even be proud of; I’m calling you something else.”
Many nicknames originate from your last name being too difficult for the individual in question to pronounce or remember, so he or she (most often, he) shortens it or makes it into something else that seems clever or funny. In high school, for instance, I was known as “Pyth” (not even “Phyth,” which would have be closer to accurate). The girls cutened that name by extending it to “Pythyr.” (I insisted that, if they were they were going to hang an inaccurately pronounced nickname on me, they were at least going to keep the “Y’s.”)
Then, of course, there are the nicknames people hang one you for something stupid you did or because you have a certain reputation or physical feature — “Joe the Nose,” “Dog-Face,” or “Two-Can” (as my college roommate was known to his fraternity brothers due to his inability to hold his liquor). Fortunately, I never got one of those.
Despite the fact that such labels are thrown on you without your consent or even desire, they are terms of endearment. They mean you’re in the club, you’re one of the gang, or that someone loves you.
My wife calls me “Johnny.” Sometimes the kids do too.
Never mind that my name is John. It’s not Johnathan, nor is it Johnny.
But when she calls me Johnny (or more often, “Her Johnny” or “My Johnny”), she is very deliberately expressing her affection for me. I’m part of the club, or in this case the family, which, given that this is a second marriage for both of us, is kind of a big deal.
So it’s good. I like being Her Johnny.
But there’s another place I get called Johnny, and that’s work. “Hey, Johnnyyyy!” someone will call out when I first arrive.
I didn’t ask for this nickname. My name badge very clearly reads: “John.” But never mind that. When I get there, someone gives me the “Hey, Johnnyyyy!” greeting.
Now, this didn’t happen right away. When I first started, I was just “John.” And because there a lot of Johns at my work, I was sometimes referred to as “John P.”
But after several months, I became Johnny. I was in the club, you see. Part of the gang.
Now, I’ve held a lot of jobs in my adult life, and this phenomenon of adding “ny” to the end of my name to indicate I was now considered officially part of the team has not happened everywhere I worked.
It only happens at my blue-collar jobs. When I work retail or restaurants, I eventually end up becoming Johnny. Whenever I’ve held a white-collar, professional position, it’s just “John.”
I’m not really sure what this says about the American workforce. I don’t know that it necessarily says anything negative about either classification of employee or the presumptions different work places make.
But I’ll say this. Working retail or restaurants is hard. You’re on your feet, the wages are low, the hours are often long, and you have to be pleasant all the time, whether you’re feeling it or not, whether or not you’re receiving pleasant behavior in kind. Every retail and restaurant job I’ve ever worked fostered, however unintentionally, an Us-Versus-Them mindset. It was We the Staff Versus Them the Customers.
And when someone ends up being reliable, is in the fight right there with you, you want to make him or her feel like they’re on their team. And how do we express that in America?
So when I get a blue-collar job and I prove myself as a valuable part of the team, I become Johnny. Whether I wanted a nickname or not, I get one as a measure of respect.
And that’s the interesting thing about nicknames. Most often, they are meant to convey acceptance and respect. We use them build community. Those two extra letters added to the end of my name are the American way of saying all those things that would be difficult or embarrassing or inconvenient to express. But by transforming “John” to “Johnny” it can all be said eloquently and easily in one extra syllable.
I can accept that. I embrace it.
Even if my name really is just John.