Against Shibboleth Nicknames


“Her friends call her Annie.” — People who pretend to know more about Anne Hathaway than you.

Every time I read an article about Ken Lerer saying something about how much money BuzzFeed has or doesn’t have, a little ghost whispers in my ear, “Kenny! People who’ve worked with him call him Kenny!” And then I hate myself faster than you can hate me. And then I am impressed by how many people I know who’ve worked for the Huffington Post at one point or another. First of all, “Ken” is already a nickname for “Kenneth,” so “Kenny” is just kind of overboard — it connotes some inner circle of people who know something about him that most people don’t know, except you don’t even have to know him to know that. And poof! The inner circle is broken. Shibboleth nicknames are just constructs, and all they signify is that someone is Important Enough For You Not To Know Them Personally. And guess what: we already know that!

For seven years, I worked at a place full of shibboleth nicknames: Hendrik “Rick” Hertzberg, Calvin “Tad” Tomkins, Calvin “Bud” Trillin, Elizabeth “Betsy” Kolbert, Kelefa “K” Sanneh, Seymour “Sy” Hersh, Jeffrey “Toobz” Toobin, David “D-Money” Remnick. I could go on, but I signed some N.D.A.s. Okay, okay, I hear you — you’re going to say this is a writerly byline thing. It sounds more professional to be Elizabeth instead of Lizzie (no it doesn’t! Lizzie Widdicombe has a WAY better rhythm!), or Nicholas instead of Nick. Bill Clinton is Bill Clinton, so why can’t William Finnegan be Bill Finnegan?

Don’t get me started on initialisms as bylines. What is this, the New York Times and are you one of its publishers? A.O. Scott is kind of cool because we uninitiated can call him “Ayoooo!” in our heads, but to those who know him, he is Tony. Booo-rinngggg. I’m going to call him Anthony just to be different from those of you who insist on being different. I see you, Daniel T. Max. I am particularly against initial bylines for women, because give me one good reason that isn’t just plain-and-simple gender erasure.

If you have a name that you go by in life, that should be your name. Good ol’ Tad Friend is actually Theodore Porter Friend (NOT Theodore Wood Friend IV) — aren’t you grateful not to have to contend with that? Amanda Urban, a grown-ass woman and one of the biggest literary agents in New York openly goes by a nickname that is more commonly encountered as a name for a baby’s pacifier. She is married to Ken Auletta, not Kenneth Auletta.

I’m not against nicknames, per se! But having a secret nickname just for people who “know” you totally defeats its purpose. Ed Koch was Ed Koch for everyone, and I still trip up every time I read an announcement about Mike “Michael R.” Bloomberg. So who is your nickname really for? Do you actually discern the closeness of your social ties by how someone refers to you? Or is this all just a performance, making you feel known by your special and important friends? Are you embarrassed, Margaret? Do you feel inadequate, Robert? Is this the screed of a woman with an un-nicknamable name? Yes.

Photo: Flickr