What’s in a name?

You can’t choose your own nickname. That much is clear. But understanding how these monikers come to be is the basis of a study that aims to help students understand linguistic concepts.

Dr Donna Starks from La Trobe University, Dr Kerry Taylor-Leech from Griffith’s School of Education and Professional Studies and Dr Louisa Willoughby from Monash University surveyed 642 secondary school students from Victoria and Queensland to discover nicknaming conventions.

Dr Donna Starks
Dr Donna Starks

“Nicknames are acquired informally and often against the holders’ wish. Most relate to personal attributes and create expectations of the user,’’ Dr Taylor-Leech said.

“Although it is widely known that language practices can significantly affect adolescent self-image, research on teen-naming practices is rare.

“Nicknames are an index of youth culture as they display many of the features typically associated with youth language such as puns and other word play, reference to culture, in-jokes, non-standard spelling and informal speech.”

Dr Kerry Taylor-Leech
Dr Kerry Taylor-Leech

The students were asked to list nicknames for people they knew and the origin of the name — i.e., derived from a given name, physical appearance, where born, and emotions.

They then evaluated the names they had selected for others as either positive, neutral, negative or a combination of these. The students also provided details of their own nicknames.

The study found the majority of nicknames were name-based, with more than half being surnames. Other nicknames were related to the holder’s physical characteristics such as weight, height or hair colour or personal habits or traits.

Common nicknames included: Ranga (a person with red hair, 31 instances), Fatty, and Fuzzy. Examples of personal traits nicknames included Bubbles (happy) Cookie (sweet, kind), Groover (clumsy), and Deep Thought (thoughtful).

Nicknames were also formed from combinations of traits, with the most common a physical trait plus something else. For example: Little Red (small with red hair) and Care Bear (a physical plus personal trait).

“These categories of nicknames can provide a way for teachers to begin exploring and categorising nicknames with their students and compare their own usage and experience as part of the writing modes embedded in the curriculum,’’ Dr Taylor-Leech said.

Dr Louisa Small
Dr Louisa Willoughby

Aligned with the Australian National English curriculum, the researchers say the study, published in the Australian Journal of Education late last year, shows how nicknaming can be used as a form for exploring language structure and use in interesting, age-appropriate, meaningful and creative ways for students.