Guys give fake names to members of the opposite sex behind their backs just like girls do—and often get in more trouble for it.
Earlier this week, Sara Ashley O'Brien investigated what's behind young women's habit of nicknaming the guys they're dating ("Hot Gym Boy," for example, or "The Repentant Whore"). According to a relationship educator quoted in the story, women frequently refrain from using real names to minimize the hurt if the budding relationship doesn't bloom.
That young women do this is a fascinating micro-example of the social and psychological function of names, and certainly a relatable one. I, too, have partaken in the use of names like "Jailbait," "Coffee-Shop Boy," "Steve the Former"/"Steve the Latter," on the occasion that the ex-guy and the new guy shared the same first name, and "Throwback Tim" to commemorate the casual rekindling of a long-extinguished flame.
But the practice of assigning these behind-the-back nicknames isn't limited to just women. Men have a similarly rich—and decidedly more controversial—tradition of nicknaming members of the opposite sex based on their appearances, characteristics, and behaviors.
Just ask a bro.
Nicknaming extends far beyond college-enrolled males between the ages of 18 and 22 who have pledged and initiated a fraternity, of course, and certainly not all frat affiliates are habitual nicknamers. But if you wanted to see this bit of sociolinguistics in action, you could start by visiting your friendly neighborhood university campus or frat quad.
In April 2009, the now-dormant frat-humor blog Bros Like This Site began its running list of things that bros like, starting with a first entry titled, "#1: Talking About How Wasted They Got." In June, the list reached No. 28: "Giving Girls Nicknames." An excerpt from a passage about glimpsing a seemingly beautiful girl from a distance:
That's when I saw it. Her face. It looked as though her face had been hanging out with those refugee kids playing with landmines in Pakistan from "Charlie Wilson's War," no actually that's too kind—imagine taking a buzz saw to Snuffulopugus's [sic] trunk and leaving just a stump. Immediately, all bros met eyes and nodded knowing, "She needs a nickname." Within 10 minutes we had narrowed it down to two names: Duckbilled Platypus and Snorkel. After much debate right in front of her we decided to go with Snorkel.
The author goes on to describe what sorts of nicknames girls get: Sexual behavior-related nicknames ("she might be known as 'The Camel' in reference to [her] spitting ability"), "hot girl you don't know" nicknames (which are generally based on where said hot girl is generally observed, such as "Ethics class girl" and "HR girl"), and nicknames reflecting physical characteristics ("one of my bros used to hook up with a ridiculously hot girl, however unfortunately for her and very fortunate for us, she had a blond mustache ... She was known as 'The Walrus' going forward").
The Bros Like This Site post attracted 470 comments, most of them recounting stories of having nicknamed girls similarly in the past. Many were anonymous; others came from commenter handles like "BroKingNJ" and "Brocho Cinco." A sampling of the (more publishable) responses:
SmokeHouse Turkey: some really hot turkish girl who lived in the bro dorm
this bitch with a pretty big nose we call "tucan sam"
The Dean (the head master)
Other frat-humor forums on the web are well-populated with stories from self-professed bros about girls earning nicknames, too: At BroBible.com, you can learn about how a girl got the nickname Peanut Butter and how another girl got the name Super Soaker—NSFW on both counts, naturally.
Exaggerated retellings? Almost certainly. It's the Internet. But sure enough, when I contacted some current and recently graduated fraternity members this week from schools in the Ivy League, Big Ten, Atlantic 10, and Big East conferences, they were able to generate a heap of memorable nicknames they'd heard and used in their frat-house days. I summoned a few that I'd heard in my college years, too.
Some of the nicknames that surfaced were relatively harmless, like "Library Girl" or "El Greco." Mick, a fraternity-affiliated 2012 graduate of Northwestern, remembered jokingly referring to a housemate's significant other by the simultaneously "regal and doofy" nickname "the Jewel of Wellfleet, Massachusetts."
Other nicknames were a little less affectionate: "Crazy Eyes," "S&M Girl," "the Pike Bike," "Hoover" (as in the vacuum brand), "Emma Twatson." One guy recalled that a beautiful girl with a speech impediment sometimes got called "The Bird," signaling "the bird can fly, but it can't sing"—and I remember a pair of petite best friends getting the unfortunate nickname of "the Micro-Sluts."
It's hard to ignore the fact that plenty of these nicknames are cruel and mean-spirited, especially when they're strung together like this. I'm sure I'm not the only one whose indignation runs high at the notion of men calling a woman a "Micro-Slut." To my ears, that sounds considerably more disparaging than O'Brien and her friends' "Hot Hat-Wearing Balding Guy" (if not "The Repentant Whore").
But many of the troubling nicknames invented by men are generated by the same formulas and constructions as the seemingly harmless ones created by women. Nicknames created by both genders frequently follow the Bros Like This Site-sanctioned guidelines for nicknaming—and those are strikingly analogous to the nicknaming guidelines O'Brien writes that she and her friends use. O'Brien's nicknames generally come from physical attributes, heritage, sexual behaviors, and locations:
Sometimes the nicknames are creative: The Crusader (super religious with a wild side in the bed), HGB (short for Hot Gym Boy), and The Meatball (round, stubby, and Italian). One woman told me, "one of my favorites is the guy my friend is dating now—he was formerly a bit of a slut, so we call him TRW, for The Repentant Whore." Then there's the self-explanatory: Hot Hat-Wearing Balding Guy, or Formerly Fat Chris. And the more generic ones that still serve their purpose: The Writer, The Brit, The Professor, SoCal. As time goes by, and there's more than one guy who could be described by a particular nickname, we feel the need to affix new descriptors for clarification purposes (i.e. The Brit Without the Maniacal Laugh). Some even have formulas for nicknames, such as taking their real first name and adding the bar or location in which they met as their last name.
Somehow, nicknames derived from appearances, behaviors, sexual habits, and personal characteristics seem more offensive when they're invented by men to talk about women. And therein lies a big, weird rub.