Nicknames can be a curse or a blessing, and sometimes both. Often, they mock a person's physical appearance, unsavory habit or memorable mishap. Among my high school classmates, for instance, physique-based nicknames included Tank, Bones, Dink, Turtle and Troll. But other monikers celebrated athletic prowess: Whip (a fast pitcher), Hands (a skilled rebounder) and Spider (a rangy linebacker).
The funny thing is no matter what the genesis of their appellations, these kids seemed to savor them. Acquiring a nickname, after all, is a visible ticket of admission to a group. You've arrived. We've recognized your unique qualities. You're one of us.
Nicknames also help groups define themselves. In my high school, these code words distinguished us from the world of adults. Most of our teachers didn't realize that the students they called Ed, Nancy and Lee were known to us as Corky, Googi and Firkydoodle. And, if an adult did pick up on a nickname and use it, that secret handle lost some of its luster.
At the age of 7, I acquired an improbable nickname that would last a lifetime. As second-graders, my friends and I often played "army," so we all named ourselves for the military ranks our dads had attained during World War II.
I was "Sarge" because my father had been a staff sergeant with the 38th Infantry Division, which, by the way, boasted two nicknames of its own: "The Cyclone Division," because its training camp at Fort Shelby, Mississippi, had been damaged by a springtime tornado prior to World War I, and "Avengers of Bataan," for its role in liberating the notorious Philippine peninsula where many Americans had been brutally killed or imprisoned.
As time passed, my childhood comrades soon shed their military nicknames like baby teeth. But for some reason, mine proved a permanent and durable molar. While teachers called me "Rob" or "Bob," to all my friends I was "Sarge."
This sometimes led to confusion. When a tardy classmate offered the excuse "I was with Sarge," our teacher furrowed her brow and asked, "With WHO?" When my basketball coach told my teammate Bill to "cover Rob" during a practice, Bill paused for a moment and then blurted, "Oh, you mean Sarge!"
As I moved on to college, this nickname faded, but I've always cherished it as an emblem of identity and inclusion that helped me survive the challenging years of adolescence. When I walked into my high school reunion a couple of years ago, it felt good to hear Tank and Googi greet me with "Sarge!"
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.