Nicknames, Pen Names, and Mental Names

I love language and all the tricks that it can be taught. I particularly enjoy nicknames that people go by. I’m not talking about the ugly hurtful schoolyard nicknames that kids used to give each other like Fatty and Stupid. I hope those days are far behind us, although from all accounts they’re not and that’s a shame. Bullying hurts and bullying can kill.
I’m thinking more of the affectionate nicknames given by friends to each other. My favorite example is my nickname given to me by our former pastor Jim Vaught, minister and counselor extraordinaire. He hadn’t known me long when he started calling me “Lt. Dan” after the Gary Sinise character in Forrest Gump. Lt. Dan was Forrest’s immediate superior and while Gump infuriated him, that was all right because everything infuriated Lt. Dan. With his anger and his foul mouth he’s not exactly everybody’s role model, although he does come to terms with his life and losses by the end of the story. So, I enjoy being called “Lt. Dan” although I never got close to the military, which was a good thing for both me and for the military. I even have a baseball cap with ”Lt. Dan” on it and I’ve gotten some good comments from that. My brother was a second lieutenant in the army, but he was Lt. Ron.
A few months back I felt the need for a pen name since I had become persona non grata with the publication I used to write for, so in order to place some news stories about the Manassas Chorale, Becky suggested using the formal form of my first name, “Daniel” (which is not my legal name—it’s a long story and not a very good one so I’ll skip it) and my middle name, “Harrison.” I used it on the news stories this past year, but everything that was published was listed as “Gathered from staff reports.” Not that I care, and in fact, I have been casting around for a more obscure pen name and have come up with “Harrison Bergeron,” which is the title (and title character’s name) of a Kurt Vonnegut short story. So watch for Harrison in a publication near you.
The funniest pen name I have seen, though, belongs to Nancy Kyme, a  local novelist (whose first book, Memory Lake, is incredible and eminently worth reading) who goes by Molly Bolt. I just about fall over laughing when I think about this pen name because noms de plume are generally pretentious and euphonious, like Walter Scott or Mark Twain or George Orwell or George Eliot. My novelist friend, however, has chosen a name that is a piece of hardware. It’s a joke I find hilarious.
I also assign people what I call “mental names,” which are ways of describing their character and behavior, generally in not very flattering ways. There was a teacher I worked with who consistently made inappropriate comments to the young women on the faculty. I witnessed a few of these charming encounters and a couple of times asked the women why they didn’t just slug him and get it over with. They shrugged their shoulders and said something like that was what you had to expect sometimes. They didn’t want to go so far as to file a harassment lawsuit, and because they were sharp young women who could dish it back as well as Mr. Turkeyhead could give it out,  it was fun to watch them squelch Mr. Big Stuff. He said something to a nice young English teacher one morning when we were on locker duty before school. She gave him a look that could blister paint and said, “Charming.”  I would have burst into tears had she said that to me, but he barely slowed down.
I like to think that I might have helped tamp him down a bit, and that was with a mental name that escaped. I called this guy “Smooth Operator” after the O’Jays’ song because he was anything but. Anyhow, I was standing in the locker area one morning talking with one of the lady teachers when Smooth Operator heaved over the horizon. Because Heather had her back to him, I whispered, “Smooth Operator alert.” She knew immediately who I was referring to and dissolved into laughter. She didn’t have to say anything back to S.O. that day because it’s hard to harass someone who is doubled over with laughter. And she spread the name around.  I think it got back to our obnoxious friend. He stopped saying inappropriate things and even stopped walking through the locker areas at class change. The word was in that case mightier than the jerk.
So you might try giving yourself a nick name or a  pen name or a mental name or ask someone to do it for you. Have some fun with it—reserve tables at restaurants in your pen name or use it for air travel…oh, wait, maybe not. “Harrison Bergeron” is taken, as is “Molly Bolt,” although I bet “Extension Ladder” and “Socket Wrench” are still available. Just go wild and see what happens.

1 Comment

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One response to “Nicknames, Pen Names, and Mental Names

  1. Ooooh, I am dying to know the true identity of Smooth Operator. When I was 12 I came up with a pen name for myself for when I became a famous writer. Wait for it: Quill Kilmer.My parents still tease me about it.

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