Would Smell as Sweet

(Originally posted at Red Room some years ago.)

From Dictionary.com, based on the definition from the Random House Dictionary: nickname/ˈnɪkˌneɪm/[nik-neym] noun, verb, -named, -nam⋅ing.

1. a name added to or substituted for the proper name of a person, place, etc., as in affection, ridicule, or familiarity: He has always loathed his nickname of “Whizzer.” 2. a familiar form of a proper name, as Jim for James and Peg for Margaret. -verb (used with object) 3. to give a nickname to (a person, town, etc.); call by a nickname. 4. Archaic. to call by an incorrect or improper name; misname. Origin: 1400–50; late ME nekename, for ekename (the phrase “an ekename” being taken as a nekename*). See eke 2 , name; cf. newt

Related forms: nicknamer, noun

I love my name, Huntington William Sharp. People tell me it’s perfect for an editor or a lawyer, careers for which I have some education and experience. I usually reply that it’s perfect for a butler, too, and wonder what it is about polysyllabic Anglo-Saxon names that makes people suddenly think of monocles, Pimm’s Cup, and scones with clotted cream. (And, of course, a pipe, a smoking jacket, and a wingback chair.)

But I don’t just love my name for its almost absurdly high tone, or because I feel pretty sure I’m the only person on Earth who bears it. For me, its primary appeal is that it blends names on both sides of my family. Huntington is the first name of my father and his father. My dad will have to corroborate this when I email the link to this blog post, but I believe my great-grandfather chose it to honor a doctor he admired whose last name was Huntington**. He named his other sons Dallas Jr., Waitstill***, and Morrison — those were headier days in New England in the early 20th century. William, my middle name, was not only my mother’s father and grandfather, but also one of Dad’s maternal uncles.

Soon after the birth certificate was safely typed up****, my parents looked at me and said, “But what in the world do we call him?!” Huntington is a fine name, of course, but maybe not perfect for the playground. Dad goes by “Hunt,” and Mom was adamantly opposed to “Junior” or (as someone suggested, apparently with a straight face) “Little Hunt.” There’s a photo in my baby book with me posed next to a card that just says “HEY YOU,” but clearly that was a temporary solution.

Since my middle name is William, they settled on the nickname by which my grandfather went, “Bill.” Bill is familiar, easy to pronounce, and doesn’t need repeating upon introduction. No one ever asks Bill if that’s his first name or his last name. Bill is friendly: I read a study once that said that, out of a list of common names, people thought they could trust men named Bill more than any other.

It’s funny to put “Bill” in quotes. It’s the name by which I’m known to most of my friends. My mom only calls me “Huntington” when I’m in trouble. When you think of Bill, you don’t think of trouble. There have been times when I’ve been grateful for such a nondescript name. The qualities that make Bill so nonthreatening also make it something easy to hide behind.

The re-emergence of “Huntington” for everyday use has a lot to do with that, actually. As has been true about several major personal steps I’ve taken in the last decade or so, the spark that led me to re-adopt it came from Ivory Madison. Ivory and I met more than a dozen years ago, have worked and studied together in several different places, and enjoy what we call a “highly interactive friendship.”

During one of our earliest “highly interactive” phases, Ivory and I took a copyediting class at the late, lamented Harvey Milk Institute here in San Francisco. She was also in her first year of law school, and was in the middle of talking me into joining her there. (It didn’t take much to yank me out of commercial property management, especially when tumbleweeds were rolling down Second Street in the aftermath of the dot-com bust.) She convinced me that it was time for me to shed “Bill,” at least professionally, and take on the full glory of “Huntington.”

And so it has been. At law school, in the Red Room Writers Society, and Redroom.com, there are many people who can’t believe I am or ever have been known as Bill. On the other hand, other friends and family remind me that I’ll always be Bill to them. How I introduce myself outside of work really depends on context. I only feel a little schizo when putting in my sandwich order at lunchtime.

I conceived this post in the shower this morning — I didn’t know it would be this long — after I Facebook-friended***** another long-lost (to me, not to her) high-school-era friend. She reminded me that a few people from that time called me “Bill the Cat.” We all loved Bloom County back then, and I certainly learned to spit out “Ack! Phfft!” with the best of them. Today I realized that a lot of people have called me by a lot of nicknames over the years. I never thought to make a list until now.

Hey You!, we know about.

Bill. We know about that, too.

Billy. A few unfortunate souls tried calling me Billy and my sister Katie in my mother’s presence. She was firm from the start: “It’s Bill and Kate.” (And, yes; at an early age, I got used to saying “yes, she can bake a cherry pie” when attacked by that asinine song.)

William. Oddly, this has persisted, most often from my dad (who sometimes goes even further, to Wilhelm. Jawohl!) and my good friend Billy.

Gui. Short for Guillaume, my name in high school French class.

Huntingt and Huntingto. Not really nicknames, but this is what started coming back on computer-generated results when I took tests like the SAT. Not enough spaces, you see.

Bill the Cat. He died the first time of internal acne. My acne in high school was sadly external, but then I didn’t die of it, either.

Bill-man. This happened in college. My friends and I watched a lot of Saturday Night Live when Rob Schneider’s Copy Guy character was calling every “Kevinator” and “Davester.” My friend Heather (whom I call “Heathstress” only every once in a while) still calls me Bill-man all the time.

Billy Monkey. Never mind an explanation for that one.

H.W. I toyed briefly with going by these initials, but my friend Deanna kind of took it and ran with it for a while.

Hunti. My friend and law-school chum Brian Miller instituted this one, which has been adopted by several Red Roomers. I want to spell it “Hünti” sometimes.

Sharpie. A recent one, begun by my friend Victoria. I am not a marking pen, I am a human being!

Sharpae. A misspelling of shar-pei, it’s only caught on with one friend, Rob. I am not a Chinese dog breed, I am a human being! I think that’s the full list. Unique names are great — just ask Ivory — but nicknames, they happen. Even “Whizzer.”

*Ain’t it cool that “an ekename” became “a nickname.” The same thing happened with “apron,” which started out as “a napron.”

**Confirmed: Dr. William Huntington was President of Boston University when my great-grandfather was a professor there.

***I never knew any of my father’s aunts and uncles, unfortunately, and for my first thirty-five years, the only thing I knew about Uncle Waitstill was that he had a funny name that hearkened back to the Puritans’ habit of naming their kids after Christian virtues (e.g., Fly-From-Temptation Smith and Look-Ye-Not-Back-As-You-Leave-Sodom Jones) — his was a reference to “Waitstill-upon-the-Lord.” It was only after one too many snarky comments from my irreverent yap that Dad tactfully informed me that Uncle Waitstill and his first wife Martha had helped hundreds of Jews escape Europe during World War II. They’re two of just three Americans honored as “Righteous Among Nations” at the main Israeli Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. (To learn more about the third, Varian Fry, check out his biography, A Hero of Our Own by Sheila Isenberg.)

****I was born in San Diego, California, first seen by European eyes in 1542 by the crew of a Spanish ship captained by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Cabrillo named San Diego Bay “San Miguel,” and it was left to a later explorer, Gaspar de Portola, to rename the area “San Diego” in 1769. Almost exactly two hundred years later, I emerged at Doctors Hospital in Point Loma, very near the first Spanish settlement. Not too many years after that, Doctors Hospital was renamed “Sharp Cabrillo Hospital.” Coincidence? Yeah, right.

*****You know, there’s a perfectly good English verb that means “to establish friendship.” But we never say we “befriend” someone on Facebook. I assume that’s because the “be-” prefix is on its way out of English. Shame.

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