• author
    • John Wood

    • August 3, 2016 in Columnists

    Nicknames can inflict lifelong pain

    Sometimes those responsible for our wellbeing unintentionally inflict long-term emotional injuries in the name of love. It’s easy to hurt a child with words. When a parent nails a word to a child, in the form of a silly or disparaging name, the negative impact can be lifelong.

    “Fifi Trixibelle” would seem state-of-the-art for a crackhead, but that’s what Boomtown Rats leader Bob Geldof named one of his daughters. Bob blessed his other daughters with “Little Pixie” and “Peaches Honey Blossom.” Frank Zappa still wins with “Dweezil,” “Moon Unit,” “Diva,” and “Ahmet.” I wonder if Frank and Gail or Bob and Jeanne would have thrived if they had been named like cartoon characters? Although Geldorf did use drugs, he was no crackhead, and Frank Zappa was aggressively anti-drug and alcohol.

    My first name is John — a good, strong, biblical name, passed on in honor of my dad, and an uncle. It was almost ruined by my given nickname: “Puggie.”

    If prenatal ultrasound had been available in 1959, it would have shown a fat baby boy with nearly six inches of hair flowing around in the amniotic fluid. Back in pre-prenatal ultrasound days, babies were more or less “surprises.” My parents’ surprise was that I crowned with a full head of long, curly black hair. There was so much hair that the doctor suggested it should be cut immediately. Fortunately, my parents denied that request and baby picture history was made.

    I have been told to give my maternal grandmother credit for “Puggie.” The story is that at the baby observatory in the obstetrics ward, Nana Pina was looking for her first grandson. Scanning the newborns from the observation window, she noticed a fat, dark-skinned baby with a natural jheri curl and a unibrow. My Nana reportedly said something to the effect of, “Oh someone had a cute little monkey.” That’s when nearby family members alerted her to the card on the crib that said, “the little monkey is your grandson”! Her recovery was wrapped around the word “puggie” and unfortunately, it stuck.

    “Puggie Wuggie was a bear, Puggie Wuggie had some hair.”

    I still remember the chants I faced as a kid. Hell, I almost began to prefer my nickname, because “John” was generally used in a tone that suggested I was about to get beaten for something I never recalled doing. My family was also quite generous in sharing exactly why I was called “Puggie.” So much love was shared via constant reminders of how pudgy and cute I was.

    I’m probably being generous about my Nana Pina’s intent. My great aunt told me the “little monkey” story about 20 years ago. I asked her did other children have “hateful” nicknames. Her body language snapped as if I had insulted her, and then she scolded me with, “No one hated you Puggie, you just looked like a little furry bear.” My great aunt was not aware that I’d been researching the maternal side of my family and a lot of what I learned was not pretty.

    My mother’s family were immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands. Like many immigrants, Cape Verdeans formed tight knit communities around New England. The Cape Cod area suited Cape Verdeans who came to the United States, because fishing is fundamental to those who live on islands. To this day, Cape Cod, Fall River, Onset and New Bedford are rich in velvety brown shades of Cape Verdean “Creole.”

    My mother’s family took great exception to her marriage to a Black man who was not of Cape Verdean heritage. It didn’t matter that Cape Verdeans were decedents of Portuguese convicts and indentured African laborers. It didn’t matter than many of those on my mother’s side of the family were much darker than my dad. It didn’t matter that my dad was an officer in the US Air Force. All that mattered was he was dark-skinned, but not Cape Verdean, which by default made him and those that followed “niggers” or in my case, “a little monkey.”

    When I compare “Puggie” to “Dweezil,” “Moon Unit,” or “Fifi Trixibelle,” I feel fortunate. I could have been named Robert and still got stuck with “Puggie.” Imagine the combination of “Dick” and “Puggie.” Maybe flip those for added effect. The effect of hearing “Puggie Dick” thousands of times could have seeded more than a lack of confidence. I might have grown up creating shortcomings that didn’t exist!

    We’ve all heard “love hurts,” but I wonder if anyone thinks of that when they give a child a nickname like “Chubby,” “Boo,” “Cupcake” or even “Buddy.” You never know what or how a nickname will stick. Take for example a neighbor of mine back in rural Southern Illinois who to this day is called “Dufus.” Sadly, that’s all she’s called. The last thing a child needs is a life-long reminder that they were once inept or clumsy.

    Children need names that are bullet- and other kid-proof; bully-proof. While adults are generally lighthearted when they using nicknames, children are downright brutal. It’s really simple: Give your child a name that other children will have to think really hard to punk. Help your child get to their teenage years with minimal emotional damage.

    A bully-proof name is a good start.


    Puggie Wuggie had some hair.

    • You had a helmet of hair John! How cute is that? Sydney alias “Syd the Squid”, “Sydney the Elephant” (Neither of those from my parents who lovingly used my name or sweetie or honey.)

      • Maya Spier Stiles North

      • August 4, 2016 at 9:53 pm
      • Reply

      What an exquisite little baby you were! I believe the great throat singer, Paul Pena, shared your heritage — amazing man. My adoptive parents had the gall to name me “Martha.” As you can see, that’s not what I answer to now. The nickname was Mouse — that was okay — but that “M” name — what a curse! People have terrible associations with the name Martha — stupid, domestic, boring, enormous, plain, uninspired, dullard — it goes on. And if you have the audacity to try to escape from the box that name casts you into, they will shove you back in the minute you extrude a single tentacle.

      I think in your case that too many don’t realize that children are actually people. To many kids aren’t fully human until they’re grown, their feelings don’t matter or they’re simply trivial. Back in the day — and I predate you by something less than 4 years — they truly didn’t seem to have a clue about the nature of children and childhood. We have a better idea now, but still, I hear people give kids nicknames that are truly cruel — insulting, demeaning. How’s a kid supposed to get a self-esteem if they here a nickname like yours — or DUFUS, for gawd’s sakes?

      So yes, children’s names — and nicknames — are a sacred duty and must not be taken lightly. Names and nicknames form entire lives — they most be chosen with the view to creating an awesome future for the child.

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