Wednesday, March 28

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 11 comments
I've been called a lot of things besides my given name at various stages of my life: shortened forms of my name, teasing terms about some undesirable trait, cozy pet names, cool nicknames, and long-story monikers.

Those nicknames often say more about my relationship with the name giver than about my personality per se. Try this little quiz to see what I mean.

Match the set of nicknames with the name-giver.

1. Lore, string bean, Ethel
2. Lars, lone xylophone, Lenzel, Lorolla
3. four-eyes, coral-doral, brainiac, freak
4. blossom, love, hon
5. Laurie, pumpkin, bird, sweetie
6. whirl, whoa-whoa, wa-wul

A. school bullies
B. father
C. nieces and nephews
D. brother
E. school chums
F. spouse

Answers at the bottom of this post.

How'd you do? Notice patterns?

A sibling loves and hates you and often calls you the strangest things based on your shared history. Parental pet names tend to be sweet and innocent, while spouses and lovers use more poetic or even suggestive terms of endearment. Tiny people often can't pronounce our names, especially if they are chock full of Ls and Rs. Bullies target qualities they don't like, or try to concoct cruel rhymes (in my case, these tended to make the bully sound stupid instead of cruel). Our friends give us nicknames that create our identities in our peer group and give us a sense of belonging--often tied to shared history or shared associations. For instance, we called my college friend Dave "Darth," because his last name was Vater. He relished it, though his expertise was Chewbacca impressions. But you get the idea.

Pet names and nicknames in the mouths of your secondary characters can communicate lots in a small amount of space. Not only the relationship, but the level of education, temperament, and background. For example, my MC's grandfathers call her "love" and "pumpkin." Pretty obvious which one's a Brit and which one's American, right?

Nicknames friends give can be shorthand for shared interests or "long-stories" that can be revealed over the course of a novel. In John Green's Paper Towns, Quentin and Ben call their friend Marcus "Radar" for such a hilariously convoluted reason, you can't help but laugh and like these guys.

If you find yourself drawn to weird names, I challenge you to consider instead giving your character a weird or funky or long-story nickname instead. Because you plucky YA heroine is going to be an unemployable adult if she's genuinely named Shimmer. Just sayin'.

Tell me about your experience with nicknames and pet names. How do you use them in your writing?

Quiz answers: 1. D 2. E 3. A 4. F 5. B 6. C

This is a repost from Oct. 2010


  1. I have so many nicknames, I've lost count. Most are tied to different eras in my life: The childhood set, the teenage set, the one that carried me through my twenties and most of my thirties- my pen name. Very few people on the planet call me by my legal name and most of them work in medical offices.

    A few of them still make me cringe when I hear them, others bring immediate smiles.

    As far as fiction, there are in fact three prominent nicknames in the book I am publishing soon: two are long-storied nicknames from childhood for secondary characters and one is a nickname one of the main characters is dubbed with by a secondary character the night he meets her.

    All have stories, and reasons, for existing, and I do feel that they add a level to the depth of each character they are attached to- and the ones who give them.

    There is also a character who refuses to use them- and it speaks volumes about him, too.

    I loved this post!


    1. I can see we are simpatico on this topic, Bru. Those layers of nicknames can tell so much about how a person changes over time, as you said. I also liked your observation that a character's refusal to use a nickname says so much.

  2. This is a very insightful post. What does it mean when your spouse give you nicknames that are more like the labels a brother would use?

    1. LOL! That's is a good question indeed.

    2. Hmm, I would guess that he grew up with sisters and his nicknaming habits were shaped by those relationships. My brother, who is between me and an older sister, calls his wife some variations on nicknames he used for me.

  3. I got all of them right! That's such an interesting exercise. My husband loves to give people nicknames. Our kids and nieces and nephews have an assortment made up by him. :)

    1. One of my best friends in college had the same knack for handing out nicknames to everyone. He's the one who made a misspelling on a piece of my campus mail freshman year be the moniker everyone hollered when I received my diploma four years later. Talk about sticking power!

  4. Nicknames certainly can say a lot! How interesting that before I saw the list of name givers, I had an idea of who was behind those nicknames. Definitely something to think about when considering nicknames for our characters!

    I've been Lo, Lolo, Lowi since I was a baby among family. Then by school time my friends overheard it and it's stuck ever since! My nieces and nephews call me Aunt Lowi since there are other Lauras in their lives. It helps distinguish who is who!

    1. It's cool you saw a pattern--it does show that a nickname says something about the name giver. The nieces and nephews always give great nicknames, don't they? As the family baby, I sometimes got stuck at the kid table with them at holidays, and they think of me as the young, cool auntie.

  5. I don't see nicknames being used a lot in books, but I think it's a great idea. Lots of fun.

    1. I've seen it quite a lot in middle grade, less in YA and adult fiction. But it can be a good characterization tool.