Here's one of those adorable "lifestyle" ads, a two-pager for Saks Fifth Avenue in the men's spring fashion supplement to the New York Times. On the left, a full-page photo of a cute, sandy-haired, unshaven, tie-loosened, crinkly-eyed, 30-ish guy; on the facing page, an album of awwwww family photos and a child's stick-figure drawing of Daddy, Mommy, etc. "Meet the Darlingtons," says the subhed, and then:
Tyke, dad, sells "ventricular assist devices," in other words, artificial hearts. He lives with his wife Laura, sons Baker and Sumner and daughter Ellie Grace in Tennessee. The beach is just a 90-minute drive away.
Tyke, dad. Not Tyke, 2-year-old kid.
Okay, maybe it's short for Tycoon. Or Tae-Kwon-Do. But ... you know what? He's a grown-up. Who sells ventricular assist devices. And tyke means:
A small child, especially a boy
A mongrel or cur
Chiefly British A man considered uncouth or mean; a boor
Origin: Middle English, mongrel, from Old Norse tīk, meaning bitch.
I admit I hadn't known about the mongrel/cur/bitch association until I looked it up just now, but I certainly knew about "tyke = small child." And my question is: why would an adult person want to answer to a name like Tyke, which rhymes with trike, which stands for toddler?
And while we're speaking of children's wheeled conveyances, here's another puzzle. I can understand why Scooter Libby may not always have wanted to be called by his given name, Irwin Lewis. For a Baby Boomer like Libby, it probably wasn't the best way to stand out amid a sea of Bobs and Brads and Jeffs. But the man is now 56 years old. And still called Scooter. Is there any context in which "to scoot" is a good thing? Is it any wonder Mr. Libby ended up in such bad company?
Then there's the former governor of Massachusetts and current Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. The humorist Roy Blount Jr. says every time he hears "Mitt Romney" he thinks it's a German konditorei order, like "mit schlag." Me, I can't help thinking "Mitt" is an abbreviation for "Mittens." Like Ralph Wiggum's cat. Mr. Romney's given name is Willard Milton--again, not a name likely to win points on playgrounds. (For the record, the double name honors a relative, Milton Romney, and the hotel magnate and fellow Mormon J. Willard Marriott, Mitt's father's best friend.) So why not "Will"? Or even "Milt"? Why the inevitable association with fingerless hand coverings? And why, oh why, are the sins of the grandfather visited on the grandson? Why did Mitt name one of his five sons Tagg? Because he's It?
I could go on. In fact, I shall. I'm currently reading Made to Stick, an interesting, well-written book about what makes ideas unforgettable. The authors are the accomplished Heath brothers, Dan and Chip. So I ask you: why did Dan get a one-carat emerald-cut while Chip had to settle for ... a chip? Doesn't a Stanford professor--which is what Chip is--deserve a real name?
And how about all the graybeards who sign their letters Buzz, Buddy, Trip, Rusty, or (shudder) Junior? Aren't they just a tiny bit embarrassed?
Maybe not in the reign of the Nicknamer-in-Chief, who has assigned nicknames to Vladimir "Pootie-Poot" Putin, ex-FEMA honcho Michael "heckuva job, Brownie" Brown, and many others. Imagining a worst-case scenario, comedian Andy Borowitz nailed it in his recent Borowitz Report headlined Bush Strips Libby of Nickname ("President: 'I Hardly Knew the Man'").
I have no problem with nicknames per se. (In case you hadn't figured it out, I'm talking here about true nicknames--from Middle English "an eke name," or additional name--not shortened forms like Bill or Ed or Sam.) If you follow American letters you know that Calvin Trillin's friends call him Bud and that those close to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., call him Skip. But neither of those gentlemen sees a pressing need to use his nickname professionally. It's like the difference, well known to parents of toddlers, between one's "outdoor voice" and one's "indoor voice." It's about appropriateness. It's about accepting that while certain names can be endearing at home, they're infantilizing and just silly out in the big wide world.
I'm compelled to point out that, on the whole, women don't fall into the nickname trap. Sure, you've got your occasional Sissy and Bitsy, but for the most part grown-up girls--at least outside the Southern U.S. and certain strata of British society--accept their given names with grace or at least resignation. When they introduce themselves, you understand that they've graduated from Garanimals. So what's up with the guys? An inability to let go of a perfect childhood? Or the linguistic equivalent of Grecian Formula?