On Nicknaming

My nephew Aeden, a pale, tow-headed, bilingual 5-year-old, is a piglet, but as he spent the first years of his life in Honduras, he is also un chancho and, along with his sister Keeley, part of los chanchitos. Children in our family are always piglets. It is an old endearment, a naming that includes Him as part of Us. Aeden has other nicknames—Pantufla Boy, from a favorite brand of Honduran slippers he wore to disintegration, and Chico Lico, a nonsense name assigned more for its rhyming qualities than anything else. Some Irish friends recently dubbed him Aedso, a diminutive of Aeden, apparently common among footballers.

When my brother tells me, “Piglet art’s in the mail,” this is more than a delivery notice. It is the call and response of our family, the lingua franca of Us. For the men of Gilead, nicknames are the inside-speak of our tribe, connecting us across distance, including some, excluding others. When Aeden reveals, “You can call me Bua” (a new nickname, a deformation of boy), he is acknowledging that we belong to one another, are family.

I once made the mistake of using our words with an acquaintance I saw at a party. He and his wife have daughters, and I asked, “Where are the piglets tonight?”

“They are not piglets,” he answered. “Or rug rats. Or ankle-biters. They are children. And they’re home with a babysitter.” And he stomped off to get a drink.

A friend, a Shakespeare professor, talks as we do. Since she briefly considered her husband’s suggestion to name their son “Blind Lemon” Jefferson, after the West Texas blues singer, I know I can ask, “How’s the piglet?” and she’ll tell me, free of recrimination.

Aeden nicknamed his sister Keelona, a mysterious reworking that drove Keeley almost blind with rage, though lately she has taken on this nickname herself. Like her brother, she, too, has several nicknames, but she usually offers Keelona first. Aeden is confused as to how the pejorative power of Keelona suddenly vanished. Pejorative co-option is an old trick (as Lenny Bruce and queer theorists demonstrated), for sometimes the power to name, and thus define, oscillates between the Namers and the Named. Perhaps it is useful Aedso learns this language lesson early.

Naming is often a shared responsibility. In our family, children have always named pets, perhaps preparing them for the serious task of one day naming their own children, or perhaps sticking them with the first of many pet obligations. Charlie Brown, an orange cat from my childhood, was named for our fondness for the comic strip and provided a first tutorial about naming. One Saturday, my friend Charlie was visiting, and as we watched “Creature Feature,” the cat jumped onto the kitchen table. My sister, Claire Anne, quite young but also quite clear on the proper conduct of felines, screamed, “Charlie!” causing my friend to leap from the couch. I’m ashamed to confess I laughed loudly at my friend’s reaction. It took Charlie a while to calm down (I believe he was often yelled at), and he never visited again.

Claire Anne, now married, calls her husband Peanut because his head is startlingly undersized, but no one else can use this nickname. The rest of us, though family, cannot use Peanut, because nicknaming can also be deeply personal. Lovers sometimes rename one another, an emotional intimacy rarely extending outside the couple. Overhearing these nicknames makes me feel as if I’ve gone beyond the pale, intruded into a most private space of language, but learning other kinds of nicknames shows acceptance, passage into the concentric rings of intimacies that comprise families, friends and acquaintances.

My mother often teased my brothers and me that any of us could have been named Tiburcio, an old name from Spain, but my parents agreed on names more biblical than Latinate: Andrew, Daniel and Mark.

Marriage is a great catalyst for language- and culture-mixing. Somehow in 1950s Manhattan, my mother, Sarita, and father, Jim—an immigrant Colombiana from Bogota and a New Jersey insurance man—found one another and married, a fairly bold move then.

My Uncle Dave said he didn’t know what to expect when he heard my mother was from South America. “I thought she was going to have fruit on her head,” he explained once. “You know, like Carmen Miranda.”

I am not sure if he yet knows Carmen Miranda was from Argentina, a few thousand miles south.

Though English was my mother s second language (with French running a quick third; she attended school in Quebec), her English was lyric and impressionistic. It took little to get her to launch into an embarrassing rendition of “We Have No Bananas,” though I delighted in her feckless singing. She had a charming way of animal-izing the world, bemoaning my brother’s tiny “mice” teeth or noting people who “buffaloed” their way into rooms. One day, she sadly mentioned my sister’s best friend had a “duck mouth.” And my mother was right. To this day, I cannot meet this woman (herself now a mother with several children) without also seeing her upper lip curled as though she were about to dabble plankton from a pond shallow. We grew up on this transformative language, which, like good art, changed the way we saw the world.

My mother needed “the patience of a saint” when my brothers or I did something particularly awful—broke a Steuben glass vase, bloodied someone’s nose, or sliced off the oil-tank cap out back with the lawnmower. For a long time, she would stare at the offender and mutter, “Sin verguenza?’ Years later in Spanish class, I learned this meant “without honor.” Before that, sin verguenza was simply the sign of trouble, something so big my father would get a call at work.

My mother apparently never lost her accent, though it took a college girlfriend to point out my mother called me “mi hijito” (my little son); to me, it was merely the sound she made when she indicated one of us. This was normative; none of us heard an accent, and it is only in retrospect that I remember her counting in Spanish. Sin verguenza, like mi hijito and her counting, were our words, alive, like all the others floating in the air of our home.

In high school, while eating humus at my friend Jimmy’s house, he mentioned my mother s accent. His parents were Jordanian.

“My mother doesn’t have an accent. Your mother does,” I insisted in a low voice, because she had just served us lunch. I said nothing about his father’s much thicker accent, because his father was an optometrist and always gave my family free eye exams.

We glared over our pita bread the rest of lunch, children of immigrants, defending our own.

Accents are difficult to hear in one’s family, though I notice them among my college students. For many years, I taught English at a community college in Houston, a city with extraordinary diversity. My students were mostly immigrants, from Latin America and farther away—Burma, China, India, Kenya and Nigeria. Occasionally Polish and Russian students appeared, mixed in with longtime Houstonians.

Rudy Perez (listed on my roll as Rudolfo), the child of Mexican immigrants, dressed like most of the other college kids, but his English was wonderfully marked by Tejano interjections and Texas regionalisms. A native Spanish-speaker, he pronounced his last name quickly, hitting the opening two letters hard, then grabbing up the remaining syllable in a rush of exhalation. He was aware of this, proud he did not sound like Anglos, who spoke their soft “puh” at the beginning of his name or said the dreaded “Pea-rez” But he did not hear his own use of regionalisms, like “fixing to.”

Native Houstonians often use “fixing to,” variously pronounced as “fìxin’” or “fittin’” before an infinitive, like, “I’m fixing to go to the rodeo tonight instead of doing my homework.” (Why my students told me these things, I do not know.) The phrase is an idiom I’ve heard nowhere but Texas, the linguistic equivalent of a breath before getting to the heart of the sentence. I don’t know how long it takes to pick up regionalisms. I suspect the younger you are, the easier it is to unconsciously adopt the sonorous qualities of place. After a while, these new Americans begin to echo their fellow Texans.

Maybe perceiving accents involves a degree of exposure. What we hear most often, we perceive the least, the background noise of our lives that fails to register. When my uncle visited me in Houston, he scowled in grocery store lines, as though he smelled something unpleasant.

He complained, “I couldn’t understand a thing that cashier was saying. How do you live down here?”

On vacation in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, we came home late and missed the small transport out to the cay where the hotel was located.

Perhaps afraid we would have to sleep on the dock, my niece said anxiously, “The boat se fue!”

This was Bay Islander Spanglish, an etymology inhering in the word, a blurring of languages clear to all residents of Roatan, a possession of Spanish-speaking Honduras but settled by English pirates and “re-discovered” by an American naval officer who saw the island through a periscope during World War II and thought he had found Eden.

Ironically, though my brother and his family now live in Miami, a gloriously Latin American city, my nephew is losing his Spanish. His sister seems immune to this linguistic erasure, perhaps because she’s 8, old enough for both languages to have taken hold. Aeden plays soccer on a team mostly composed of blond, blue-eyed, Argentine children. It is so odd, my sister-in-law tells me, to watch these Aryan-looking kids running up and down the field and, when they miss a goal, to hear “puta spill from their mouths. Despite these weekly language tutorials, Aeden s Spanish is slipping. He is forgetting words and pronouncing others, as my brother puts it, like some Berlitz-trained CIA operative in Central America.

My sister-in-law speaks only Spanish at home, encouraging the dual citizenship of my nephew s tongue, but English seems omnivorous, even in Miami. In Honduras, when he was very young, my nephew would beg the maid for cookies, which she heard, appalled, as cucas, slang for vagina. Back then, Aeden did not yet separate the world and its speakers into those who used his mother’s words and those who used his father’s; lately, however, his father’s are winning.

My father was the other great influence in how we talk. He taught us a song from the Navy—”Bell-bottom trousers, buttons made of brass, loose around the collar, tight around the … uh oh.” We sang this on car trips, over and over, the uh ohs getting louder until my mother hushed us. The delight lay in the uh oh, which took the place of words we were not allowed to say. My father thought this terribly funny, as we all did, this approach to and retreat from the as-yet unspoken.

I often overheard my father’s brothers joke with Uncle George about his World War I days as an Army cook. (His doughboy helmet still hangs in my grandmother’s garage.)

“Hey, George,” they’d say, “we heard you killed 50 men in the war.”

“Something like that,” he’d answer modestly.

They would be quiet for a moment.

“Too bad,” my uncles would burst out laughing, “all of them were Americans, and it was from your meatloaf.”

When Uncle George visited, he would give us sips of his beer (mainly to make my mother react) and pay me a dollar for any joke he hadn’t heard that made him laugh. I used to prepare, cribbing material from the back of Boys’ Life. Language became currency in a literal way, though his booming laugh was the more important reward for my efforts.

Only after he passed on did I figure out George was not an uncle but a granduncle, my grandmother’s brother. And though my father’s brothers were indeed uncles, they were not to be confused with Uncle Iver (a distant cousin) or Aunt Bucky (completely unrelated to anyone, my Aunt Helene’s childhood best friend).

Exhausting. The accuracy of office gave way before the vanities of age or convenience. “Uncle” or “Aunt” was always enough, a naming that indicated familiarity, implied the closeness of a blood relative, regardless of technical exactitude.

My father once told me about a case from work, about a man who went into hospital to have a gangrenous leg amputated. Through oversight or incompetence, the surgeon cut off the wrong leg. Discovering the mistake, the surgeon then removed the diseased leg, leaving the poor man legless, consigned to a wheelchair instead of being able to get around on a prosthetic.

I remember being outraged. I remember thinking about it, while my father waited patiently.

Finally I blurted out, “He should sue that doctor!”

“He can’t,” my father said.

“Why not?” I demanded, identifying with this suffering, legless man.

“Well,” my father said slowly, “legally, he didn’t have a leg to stand on.”

The genius of that joke is in the discipline it takes to wait, confident that hearers will feel the violation inherent in the narrative and look for redress.

And the trap is sprung.

It was around the same time that I also realized my father had never been in the Navy. He was an Air Force man, a navigator in Korea, though, because of the uh-oh Navy song, we had always assumed otherwise. Language was slippery, a tool, a weapon.

Language formation is a continual process, the product of the people we encounter, the places we live and the foods we eat. We grew up on platanitos, oversized bananas ready to eat only when the skin has completely darkened, the sweet fruit sautéed in oil and served at dinner. Unless we were shopping in a Cuban grocery, though, we heard plantains, the word sloppy and flat as mud. In Latin American restaurants, I now hesitate, acutely aware of the difference between platanito and plantain. Plantain is their word. I check the nametag and skin tone of the table server before ordering. To align yourself with platanito is to align yourself with the Other, though this was easier when we moved to Tampa, Florida, in the 1970s.

Tampa and Cuba are deeply intertwined. In Tampa’s Ybor City, massive, 19th-century brick cigar factories loom over shotgun houses built for cigar rollers. Mr. Allende, my Spanish teacher from the all-male preparatory school my brothers and I attended, escaped from Cuba right after Castro came to power. We would distract him, asking, “Tell us again about the rafts and police boats.”

In his Hav-a-Tampa-cigar-soaked voice, Mr. Allende would patiently retell his story. We’d sit back smugly, because the trick had worked yet again. I did not realize until years later, when I stood before a classroom, how this intimacy was the mark of great teachers, the willingness to speak what was true, addressing us as adults.

Our RE. teacher separated touch-football teams into “White boys” and “Latins,” reasoning that Latins were immune to the brutal, Florida sun. Cubans, Italians and any other dark-skinned boys (including my friend Jimmy) were always Skins. The few African-American students played with the Latins. I was always a Shirt, having inherited my father’s Irish coloration, unlike my brother Daniel, who was always a Skin.

To prepare us for the independence of college, the school let seniors leave campus for lunch. Friends and I hit nearby restaurants, mainly for Cuban sandwiches—glorious smoked pork, Swiss cheese, ham and lettuce concoctions on Cuban bread, pressed on a planchado, two heated iron plates that crisped the bread and melted the Swiss cheese. A Cuban sandwich, Coke and a coconut glacé were my lunch for a year. Glaccs were half-coconuts filled with vanilla ice cream. The wrapper noted they were made in Miami. There was something so tropical and decadent in scraping the coconut meat with a metal spoon and bringing it up through the cold, sweet mound of ice cream ringed by coconut meat—and in the heft of it all in your hand. The appeal was as much in the taste as in the exotic name and origin.

For New Year’s, a family in our middle-class neighborhood roasted whole pigs in a pit dug in their back yard. Deed restrictions limited the number of cars you could have in your driveway, but the roasted pig crowd was always ignored, as the block chair might be sitting next to you at a communal table, eating puerco asado over black beans and rice, while someone’s abuelita spooned out flan in the kitchen.

My mother, her sister Clara and their mother, Sara, arrived at Ellis Island in 1945. My grandmother worked in Manhattan sweatshops her whole life. I never knew her, though I imagine how difficult it must have been at first, the three of them in New York City, without English. Of course, the girls would have quickly picked it up and, as guide-girls of the Word, walked my grandmother through America. My mother had mostly painless memories of childhood, mispronunciation of` “easy-cream” for ice cream, looking in the windows of FAO Schwartz at Christmas. They saw Salvador Dali walking a leopard on a leash down Fifth Avenue, and I want to believe my grandmother, a strong Colombiana con sus hijas, went up to him (the girls would have been shy around the man and animal), and talked with that crazy Andalusian.

My mother, the oldest, must have grown up quickly, having to speak to building superintendents and sweatshop foremen for her mother. Only my oldest brother, Andrew, knew our grandmother. As a boy, he swam easily between English and Spanish, loved and taught by Nana, an elegant, dark lady, whose immigration papers we still have. She died before the rest of us came along, and Andrew’s Spanish seeped away, never to return.

When I am in Manhattan, I stay with friends on the Lower East Side. It is the New York I think my mother knew, a dizzying amalgam of immigrants—Chinese, Hasidim and Puerto Ricans. Little Italy is to the west, now a memory neighborhood, a nostalgic atoll amidst the rising tide of the newest arrivals. Chinatown, with its signs in Cantonese and English, laps at the edges of the East Village, competing with Jewish merchants vending mezuzahs from shop windows piled thick with the relics of history. Kids drive imported cars with shiny rims, bass thumping so loudly the Puerto Rican flags hanging from rearview mirrors bounce.

I love walking in this neighborhood, past fish sellers and pickle barrels, the corner newsstand. The last time I visited, it was summer and hot. Most of the old buildings had no air conditioning (unlike in the comparatively youthful Houston), and the doors were propped open, the inhabitants hoping for a scant breeze meandering in off the Hudson. I passed through a column of heat from an open door, and inside a cavernous, sepulchral room were rows of sewing machines, each lit by the single bulb above the clattering needle. The women closest to the door looked up as I blocked the sunlight. They were Asian. Little had changed since my grandmother was there, except the color of the women’s skin.

My sister, Claire Anne, is named for two lost sisters, her name a tenancy of grief. The Anne comes from my father’s younger sister, Betty Anne, the only girl in a family of three boys, who died young. Her death was an aching loss my father and his brothers rarely spoke of.

Most of her life, we called Claire Anne “the Baby.” At first it made sense. She was the youngest, the only girl. But over the years, meaning became loosed from its form. The Baby became an unconscious nickname, simply the sound all of us made when indicating her. She says that, as an adolescent, this was especially humiliating, particularly around boys she liked. As much as she begged, we could not stop, though not out of meanness. We tried and were successful for a while, but eventually, when we were tired and thinking less, we would revert to the original nickname.

It was only when Daniel and his wife had their daughter Keeley that we stopped. It took only 27 years.

Claire Anne and her husband just had a baby girl—Sarah Grace, named after my mother. Sixty years ago, my grandmother Sara begat Sarita, who had Claire Anne, who just had Sarah Grace.

Claire Anne’s father-in-law, a sporadic synagogue attendee, refuses to call the baby Sarah Grace. It is too Catholic for him. He calls her Sarah, a nomenclator taking refuge in the Old Testament matriarch. They fight over this, my sister aware of the rejection implicit in his use of Sarah only. But there is a startling constancy in Sarah Grace he does not yet see, one that goes beyond naming. Each day, her eyes and smile grow to mirror my sister’s baby photos, and each day, Claire Anne resembles our mother more. Sarah Grace will grow into her name and grow to be like her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. And by then, her reluctant grandfather will be gone, too, alive only in how we choose to speak of him.

Claire Anne’s other namesake, Clara, died young, too, in America. When their mother was off sewing collars on dress shirts, my mother and Clara got into a fight with some neighborhood boys and were badly beaten. They limped back to their small apartment, and Clara lay on a bed, complaining of a headache. She vomited once and never woke again.

Their mother found her when she got home.

The boys were not strangers, and my mother pointed out a small grocery store owned by their father. After Clara’s funeral, my mother accompanied her mother to speak with this man, but he wanted none of it. He screamed at them, ran them out—a hesitant, dark-skinned girl and her silent, dark-skinned mother—with his words.

I’m not sure if it would have made any difference if their English had been better.

I used to have a fantasy of finding one of the sons—at least one of them probably still alive—perhaps an old man retired to a beachfront condominium in Florida. It would not be that difficult to track him down. I would show up at his front door with my brothers and pull him outside, and we would start punching, breaking the bones in his face, until he remembered, until he begged us, through words and gestures, to stop. And then we would decide.

Sarah Grace is only a few months old now. She will grow up with two parents, with uncles and aunts and cousins. She will be read to and taken to libraries and told our stories. She is deeply loved by all who have held her.

Already we are starting to call her piglet.

About the Author

Mark O’Connor

Mark O’Connor’s work has been published in Gulf Coast, Karamu and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Slippery Rock University and resides in the Mexican War Streets district of North Pittsburgh.

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