Steven Ivory: What’s in a (Nick) Name?

*The email said we’d spent time together as kids in the same Oklahoma City neighborhood.

He did seem  to know all the ways my friends and I whiled away our enchanting childhood summers:  riding our Stingray bikes in the blistering midday sun, despite  Mama’s advice to the contrary;  spending spectacular  mornings in the swimming pool at Washington Park; using penny candy as currency; swigging down bottles of ice cold Nehi and Squeeze pop at the Ice Dock on eighth street.  Scarfing down hamburgers, hotdogs and potato chips from tiny, quality neighborhood greasy spoons such as Butler’s and Grady’s.

I wrote back that I have fond memories of all those things.  I just didn’t  remember doing any of them with a boy named Thomas. The man responded with just five words: “Stevie”–only  family and friends from my Stone Age call me that–”this is June Bug.”

June Bug. My God. How many days had I spent wondering whatever happened to the doe-eyed skinny kid with milk chocolate skin,  really good looking but not stuck on himself, who used to come from Kansas City to spend summers with his grandmother in Oklahoma City.  Like a migrating bird, he’d show up late May and then disappear  at the end of  August.  He  found Donny and I one evening on our bikes behind Carter G. Woodson Elementary, introduced himself–what kid formally introduces himself?– and that was it.  We were fast friends,  hanging out a couple of summers.

I never knew his real name.  The day we met, his grandmother stuck her head out the storm door of her clapboard dollhouse of a  home and summoned him  in  for dinner as June Bug. From that moment on,  that’s what we called him.  Getting an email from June Bug–not knowing him by anything else–and him calling me Stevie as opposed to Steven, got me to thinking about nicknames.

I considered all the June Bugs I’ve encountered in my childhood;  all the people I’ve known who  answered to monikers that began with “Little” or “Lil,’”  indicating  that somewhere,  there is someone  bigger and older with the same name.  How is it that a girl ceremoniously  christened  Margaret at birth but who answers to Allison, is known to everyone as Coco?

We’re a nickname-conscious  culture.  We  rename  everything, from people-–J-Lo and Brangelina-–to government programs-–ObamaCare.  Strangers at cocktail parties, after being introduced,  casually  counter with, “What would you prefer to be called?” How about the name I just gave you.

Just once,  with a straight face, I’d like to find the gumption to reply: “Call me Hank.  But just for this evening, and just between you and I.   To everyone else, please  introduce me as  King of the Booty Slappers.  KOTBS for short.”  I can just hear THAT being shortened (“…Oh, have you met Booty?….).

At least those people give you the courtesy of asking what you’d like to be called. How about the special souls you’re  introduced  to, who, in the name of brevity or  implausible  attempt at familiarity, promptly return your name to you sliced, diced and reduced  to molecule form, as if it’s all just too much for them to mouth.  Kevin  becomes  Kev,  …read more