What’s In A Nickname?


The other day, I was on the phone with customer service for one of my credit cards.

“We’ll just need your security word for verification. It’s a childhood nickname.”

“Oh, jeez…Was it Moo? Or Moose?”

“Well, it’s like that, but with something else in front of it…”

Sigh. “Bessy MooMoo.”

Chuckling on the other end. “Yes, that’s it.”

Now you can glean a couple of things from this story. 1) I had enough nicknames as a child that I couldn’t remember which one I’d used. 2) I basically decided to choose the most embarrassing one as my security word.

Why on earth would I do that? Why would I choose a real nickname at all, and not just make up something cool, like “Spike” or “Red”?

Well, a long, long time ago, in a land called suburban New Jersey, there was an awkward and uncoordinated seven-year-old who didn’t know how to ride a bike. In fact, I’m sure there were many of them, but this one was me, and 1976 was the year when we moved from Newark, NJ to the suburbs of South Orange. Everything was different in suburbia: in addition to knowing how to ride a bike, I was expected to know how to do my hair and how to dress. I had always been a tomboy, and never paid much attention to how I looked, but in third grade in the suburbs, that shit mattered. I tried to stick with what I’d been doing — basically just wearing t-shirts and shorts or corduroys for every occasion and never, ever wearing my hair down, ever — but it didn’t really make me Ms. Popular, nor did doing well in school. I still managed to make a few friends by 5th grade, but then several of them moved to different states or different schools, or they were boys — and you definitely couldn’t be friends with them in 6th grade. Then junior high happened, and everything basically went to shit.

Except for one thing: I actually found a nice group of friends. They mostly weren’t in my class at school (one was older, one was younger, one went to Catholic school), so 7th grade was still a nightmare, but outside of school, things were better. We’d get together to bake cookies and do craft projects, have sleepovers at each other’s houses and watch Friday Night Videos. We even started writing a group novel we just called “The Story,” basically a comic soap opera written on spiral notebook pages that eventually grew to encyclopedic heft, about our future fantasy lives, traveling and having adventures and, of course, dating handsome actors and rock stars. Aside from not caring much about how we looked and not having great social skills, I think that was the main thing our little group had in common: we shared a silly sense of humor with which we liked to get creative.

Thus and so, it was one of those friends gave me the nickname Bessy MooMoo. She “reasoned,” in the brilliant manner of a goofy tween (even though we didn’t call them that yet in this brand new decade we called the 80s), that Betsy sounded like Bessy, and Bessy was the name of a cow.  Luckily, it was kind of a mouthful, so she was really the only one who called me that, and the name got shortened by everyone else to just Moo. That name stuck, and believe it or not, I totally accepted it. I know, you’d think that I would mind being associated with a cow at that age, when wearing a purple sweatsuit to gym class gave me a special resemblance to an eggplant (seriously, what could I have been I thinking?) – especially because, like everyone else, I’d been called lots of names I didn’t like during my childhood. Betsy Wetsy was the worst, but Betsy Ross was also popular, and of course I hated them both. You may ask yourself, What’s wrong with Betsy Ross? She was a pretty okay chick in her day, and that’s certainly preferable to Bessy MooMoo. The key, however, was that I knew the difference between a taunt and a nickname. Mean kids called me names to get a rise out of me or hurt my feelings. My friends called me names because they liked me.

Now, Bessy MooMoo was not my first nickname. My father had had tons of nick/pet names for me and my brother when we were kids. Moose was one of those, a name my dad came up with because, he would explain to anyone who did or did not ask, “I can’t think of anyone who looks less like a moose.” I didn’t love it, but it was no worse than “Mop,” which was one the ones he called my brother. I have no idea about the origin of that one, maybe my brother’s mop of curly hair, but it didn’t matter. For as long as we could remember, these nicknames just were, as terms of endearment and inside jokes. They are still part the memories that tie us together as a family, signifying each member’s special identity within it. But while I’d always gotten that kind of love and attention at home, getting it from friends was different. After feeling like kind of an outsider for so many years, I finally was a special part of something – a something that, finally, provided me with a place where I could feel comfortable starting to make the transition from childhood to adolescence, and I really needed that.

I’ve acquired a lot of nicknames since then. In college and film school, for better or worse, I seemed to attract at least one new one every year. Freshman year, it was Snagger or Snag, which is still the most pervasive. Thanks to a sophomore year prank, various people in my dorm that year called me Trix or Wetsy (yeah, don’t ask). Junior year abroad, I lost my voice to the flu and people called me Demi for a little while (even after my voice came back). Then senior year, a lot of my RA friends decided to christen me Bagel, and that one’s stuck around too. One friend in film school called me Betsala and that caught on for a while, and then at some point it became The Finagler. These names really had no basis in reality — I never “snagged the dudes” as my friends jokingly insinuated or finagled much of anything (does that picture look like the female Harvey Weinstein [ew] to you? Maybe if I’d gone to USC…). The point of them is that they connect me and those friends to a specific place and time and the people we were there and then.

I’m not a big fan of nostalgia, it often clouds over what really happened with gauzy memories that bear less and less of a connection to reality as time goes on. But a nickname is something that keeps you tied to your past almost effortlessly, because it just is. I guess that’s why I’m happy to remember even the embarrassing ones, because we wouldn’t be the people we are without the dorky and hilarious young people we used to be.

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