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.
It's a point that commenters brought up earlier this week, and with good reason: There does seem to be some sort of imbalance in acceptability when the genders are swapped in the nicknaming game. I'll be the first to admit that when I imagine a group of women conspiratorially calling a short, stocky Italian boyfriend "The Meatball," as O'Brien does, it doesn't instinctively infuriate me quite as much as the thought of a group of men calling a short, stocky Italian girlfriend "The Meatball."
Is it sexism? A double standard? Is it perhaps just a difference in intent that makes men's nicknames more (or less) hurtful than women's nicknames? Why does the thought of a group of girls inventing "Formerly Fat Chris" rankle less than the thought of a group of guys inventing "Formerly Fat Kristen"?
If there's one definitive right answer to that question, I certainly didn't find it. But according to Mick, it shouldn't be less offensive at all. They're both, as he put it, "shitty, intentionally demeaning things to say."
Others, though, say the intent is often what makes guys' nicknames for girls—or at least, the kinds thrown around in fraternity-house basements—different.
As O'Brien learned from relationship educator Pat Love, women sometimes nickname their not-yet-fully-boyfriends to defer recognizing them as whole humans and thus minimize the despair if these guys disappear without warning. But according to a recently graduated member of a fraternity at Brown University—let's call him Dan—it's not about that for guys.
"We don't do it all the time," Dan explained. "But I think when we do, it's because referring to a girl by name makes her sound like your girlfriend. 'I'm hanging out with Lisa later' makes it sound much more serious than 'I'm hanging out with The Wrestler,'" he told me, adding that "The Wrestler" was a friend's consistent hookup whose last name sounded like "wrestler."
It also helps keep things casual, according to Dan. "A nicknamed girl doesn't sound like a girlfriend, and a girlfriend is a threat to bonds of bro-hood," he joked. "So the nickname relegates the girl to casual hook-up status, making it harder for you to think of her as a serious girlfriend, making it harder for her to 'break up the band.'
When I asked the creator and author of Bros Like This Site—an enigma known only to his fans and readers as Ned's Younger Brother—he stated outright that in his experience, the nicknames given to women by men were far more mean-spirited than those given to men by women. And when a guy gives a girl a nickname, he wrote in an email, it's not about self-preservation: "I really don't think that guys are in the mental state of trying to keep the girls at arm distance in case things don't work out. Instead it more has to do with being able to tell funny stories to our friends." And if there's a funny story to how a hookup happened, he added, "you better believe there will be a nickname coming out of that."
Ethan, a 23-year-old fraternity-affiliated DePaul alumnus, and Matthew, a junior and current fraternity brother at Butler University, explained that when young guys slap a nickname on a girl, it's often expressly for the purpose of mocking the guy who's seeing her. "It probably starts as a way to make everyone else laugh, but then sticks around because it's the perfect mix of funny, descriptive, and insulting," Ethan told me.
And according to Matthew, a nickname usually surfaces within 24 hours of a first hookup or date. "It's usually a good way to get under a brother's skin," he says. "For instance, if the chick is not very attractive, or the nickname is just funny."
"Also," Matthew explained to me, "guys do it so that we can talk about them right in front of the girls without fear of detection. Asshole status, I know, but that's how it usually goes down at the frat."
Ned's Younger Brother concurs. "Guys definitely give girls nicknames to put them down, but they do it in a way so that no one else would know what they're talking about, especially the girl in question," he wrote. "This allows us to talk about those girls even when they're standing right next to us, you know, so no one's feelings get hurt!"
A noble goal, certainly. If only it were that easy.
One thing young women and young men seem to agree on, though, is that nicknames usually have an expiration date. For women, as O'Brien's article expresses, a man earns a real name when he's deemed "worthy." For some of the men I asked, the nickname period ends when the casual fling turns into a mutually recognized girlfriend-boyfriend relationship.
According to Ned's Younger Brother,
There's definitely that moment when your friend is dating a girl where you realize, "Whoa, this is getting pretty serious." At that point it's almost an unspoken thing that the transition needs to be made towards her real name. ... Overall, I'd say the nickname ends when it's clear she's more than just a late night hookup.
Ned's Younger Brother, now 30, wrote that among his friends, reminiscing of a certain sort ensues in the later, serious stages of a relationship—often affectionately looking back at how far the couple has come. Conversations like these commonly include comments like, "I can't believe he's gonna get married to Puke Girl."
Let's hope Puke Girl never knew about her unfortunate nickname. Or, perhaps, let's hope Puke Girl and her fiancé Sean (Now With 60 Percent Less Beer Gut!) come clean about their secret nicknames for each other before the wedding.