On Nicknames

Nicknames have been on my mind recently. Around my 40th high school reunion this summer, I thought about the nicknames we had for friends. We all referred to each other which them and remembering missing and lost friends by their nicknames, I realized just how cruel they were.  

I also live in the town where I went to high school and the school (and community) has been trying to figure out how to move on from the offensive mascot they used when I was a student. 

The third event to bring nicknames into my thoughts recently is a tweet I posted that seemed to get some attention. Specifically, I tweeted  

“Can we please stop referring to students as kiddos?” 

We all have our opinions about nicknames.  

“Is it that big a deal?”  

“Mine never hurt me.” 

“I feel attacked when I hear them.” 

When I am asked about nicknames, I come to the following conclusion: How we react to them depends entirely on context. 

I would never dream of giving my friends the nicknames now that I gave them 40 years ago. We all survived our nicknames, but that does not mean everyone did. As an adult who has spent his life as an educator, I realize I have no control over the nicknames students give themselves and use outside of school. I can encourage them to avoid cruel names, but I expect I have little influence. I can support those who are trying to shed their nicknames and I can insist they not use them in classrooms (teaching them the valuable skill of code switching while I am at it).  

As an educator, I believe we should remove offensive mascot names. When we have so many other options for naming our performers when they are in public, it is untenable to use a name that promotes violence and that disparages a group. The last time I heard an update, I found our local school board took the rather spineless (in my opinion) of not naming a school mascot. The school’s team are simply referred to as the name of the city. 

As an educator, I know we need to refer to large groups of mixed gendered people who may vary in age range. I know we need to avoid some terms. Personally, I dislike “kiddos” as it seems degrading. I have been using “folks” for a long time, but I am sure some folks would find a reason to ask me to stop. 

What it comes to for me, as I look back at a lifetime of using nicknames that were and still are offensive, is we need to stop using those we should not, and we need to be accommodating. If an individual say nickname is unwanted, then stop using it. If you find a new nickname, then make sure it is acceptable. (One school where I worked called students by their computer user names which was their first initial and last name; many students called me “gackerman.” When Scott Knot (which isn’t the real name, but the spoken username was the same) moved into town, we stopped.  

I used to refer to students with what seems to be the most appropriate nickname: “OK, you bunch of 7th graders its time for the test,” is an example of what I’d say. Interestingly another teacher heard me and started using it, but the students told them to stop. 

Our nicknames are signs of endearment, they reflect our relationships, and they build connections. If you find the nicknames are not doing the job, stop using them.