As a kid, I recall being with my dad while he registered my older brother Ray at the hospital. I don’t remember what he was in for, but he was the kind of kid who got into fights; the bridge of his thick glasses was perpetually held together with white tape.
Dad was a devout atheist, so answering this question they used to ask – Religion? – would irritate him. Then, when he told the receptionist Ray’s name and she asked, “Short for Raymond?” he answered back, “No, George.”
Dad had specifically helped Mom pick out names for us that could not easily be turned into nicknames: Ray, Rita, Jana. Which, when you think about it, is a bit hypocritical. Dad’s given name was Vincent and everyone called him Vince.
Ray tried to foist the nickname “Hub” on me. No idea where this came from. He’d pin me to the ground, as older brothers will do, slapping the sides of my face and saying, “Hubba-hubba-hubba”, over and over. Thankfully it didn’t stick.
At school, kids called me “Ritard” on occasion. And, of course, Hartley morphed into “Fartley” from time to time. Luckily I’d learned, from having an older brother, to just ignore it, as in “sticks and stones”, and it will go away.
When I met my future husband Hugh in high school he told me he did not like it when people called him Hughie. But Hugh is a hard name to say. Before our first few dates I went around talking about “Hugh” this and “Hugh” that to practice; he was the first Hugh I’d met. One of Hugh’s best friends at the time, a teenager you would not want to correct as he looked 24 at 17, called him “You” or “You-ie”. He could not physically say the “Ha” sound followed by the “Ya” sound.
Once Hugh and I got to know each other better I found out his football team had a successful play that went, “One-Spook-Fly”. The “Spook”? Him. Although he was white, his sandy brown hair was a frizzy Black texture that he’d grown out into a humongous afro, quite “in” in the late 70s. (That was one of my practice chats at home: “Mom! Not one word about Hugh’s hair.”)
As our school was predominantly white (I say predominantly, but there were zero Black students at that time), I was unaware of the racist history of the word “spook”. And I suppose Hugh could have been accused of cultural appropriation with the afro, but Black Lives Matter issues and cancel culture were decades off. Hugh was just capitalizing on radical natural hair, which made him a magnet for cops and drug purchasers.
That hair, and Hugh’s skinniness at 17, also produced the nickname “Q-tip”. It was several years into our relationship before I found out his grandma had called him “Hughie-Dewey-Dumplin’-Footer” when he was little.
By then, I realized that some nicknames are just downright adorable. And they’re a sign of unending love for the recipient, right? Unfortunately, the only one Hugh ever came up with for me was “Riter-big-eater”. (I have a friend who used this phrase – “highly motivated by food” – to describe one of her grandchildren. If the phrase fits, wear it and I do, along with the extra pounds.)
In adulthood, Hugh came up with one for himself while at an NFL game. Standing on the bleachers, swilling beer, the guy next to him asked his name. He slurred it: “I’m Huge!” I know. “Huge” is easier to say than “Hugh”, but I never called him that.
The nicknames for our kids came quick. Our first, Jetanne, became “Ta” because that’s all her eldest cousin, who was three at the time, could say. Consequently, most of us called her “Tan”. Then her sister Randelle came along and became “Randy” (I spelled it “Randi” or “Rande” for a time, trying to feminize it, but she eventually settled on the male spelling.)
There’s something special about fathers and daughters; Hugh naturally called Jetanne his “princess”. When Randy came along? She was a little shorter, a little rounder and became his “button”. It was so sweet, until the day Randy got old enough to ask, “Dad, how come she’s your princess and I’m just a button?”
Then Jay completed our family, but dang it. The name was too short; we had to lengthen it to “Jaybird”. In high school many of his friends just called him “Bird” or “Birdman”.
Now, that’s a decent collection of nicknames, but there was something about losing Hugh in 2004 that brought about a whole new era. Me? The nickname-less one? Friends and family started calling me “Reets”. Finally, a decent nickname that stuck. After years of calling Jetanne “Tan”? Well, now I often call her “Jet”. Randelle is still usually Randy, but sometimes she’s “Delle”. Jay? Still a bird. He’s just got this cool thing about him – people point this out all the time – and birds are cool, right?
But bananas? Not cool! At a bar, pre-pandemic, I tried to be helpful with name association when introducing myself and my sister to a woman we’d just met.
“Just think of us as the banana sisters,” I said. “Rita-Chicita and Jana-Banana.”
And she said, “Oh, like,” and she did this rude thing with right hand up to her mouth and her tongue prodding her cheek.
“NO!” I said.
Of course, we’ve carried on the nicknaming to the next generation. The first grandchild, Simone, became “Mone.” And she got to nickname me. We tried out “Grita” – a G, for grandma – in front of my name. (Perhaps in miniscule denial about aging, I did not want to be Grandma, Granny, Nana.) But it’s hard for little ones to get their mouths around a hard “G”, so it came out “Gia”. And I love it!
Now, Simone’s little sister’s name, Naomi, seems quite different at first glance, but when you shorten it to “Nomes”? It sounds a lot like Mone. When their little brother Beau – or “Beauie” – came along he was confused for a while. Did he have two sisters or one? Did they have the same name? Now, at five, he often pluralizes them: “Girls!”
My dad’s been gone a while now. I suppose I should apologize to him, in absentia, for being on this lifelong nicknaming binge. I certainly don’t think he loved me any less, because he never called me his precious little pearl, or anything. (I’ve looked it up. “Rita” is a derivative of “Margarita”, meaning “Pearl”.) Dad was an atheist, a realist. See it, taste it, touch it, smell it, hear it? It’s real. Anything else? Well, that’s all “woo-woo”. Fact: he and Mom named me Rita – after the actress Rita Hayworth – not George or Pearl or Reets.