An Ode to Nicknames

What yours says about you

Illustration of sketched person shrugging with question mark for mouth and nose on green background
Tim Lahan

Here’s what I think about Spare, by Prince Harry.

I think it’s a very interesting book, a feat of psychosensory downloading by the master ghostwriter J. R. Moehringer. But it should have been called Spike. “The Spare”—as in, not the heir—is what members of the Royal Family have allegedly dubbed the brooding prince. “Spike,” however, is his nickname, or his most resonant one. It’s the one used by his more roistering and familiar chums. Spike is who Harry really is. Spike is his punk-rock Etonian ginger essence. Spike, as T. S. Eliot put it in “The Naming of Cats,” is his “ineffable effable / Effanineffable / Deep and inscrutable singular name.”

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Your parents named you, of course. But bless them, they had no clue who you were. They plucked your name out of the air, for their own reasons, their own sentimentalities, like they were getting a tattoo. And a newborn baby has no relationship with its name. Next to the exploding, barbaric baby-self, its name—so thoughtfully chosen, so fondly given—is a nothing.

Your friends, however—and your enemies—they know who you are. They’ll give you your real name. Behind your back, sometimes, which almost guarantees its accuracy: They’re reporting on angles and aspects of you that you can’t even see. No one comes up with their own nickname. A boxer or a wrestler might name himself, glorify himself with some sobriquet, but that’s different. That’s branding. Marvelous Marvin Hagler is not a nickname.

There are no bad nicknames or wrong nicknames, for the simple reason that if they’re bad or wrong, they don’t stick. If it sticks, like it or not, it’s your nickname. At school I was Gobbet—because I was small, or goblinlike? Or in some way like a discrete chunk of matter? Whatever, it stuck. My son was 10 when he first called me Mr. Personal Pants, for my habit of taking everything personally. (Reeling with self-recognition, I protested in vain that writers have to take everything personally. It’s our job.)

There are ironic nicknames, counter-nicknames—the Viking-size rugby player known to his teammates as Tinker Bell. But maybe there is something darting and sprightly about him. Insane-seeming nicknames, deriving perhaps from some now-forgotten incident: Another kid at school was called Bleh Bleh. Not Blah Blah. Bleh Bleh. Having trouble remembering someone’s name? Give them a nickname. Sci-Fi Mike. Second-Wave Dave. Eugene the Unitarian. As long as some fiber of their primary nature adheres to it, you won’t forget it.

Meanwhile, other people will be doing this to you—fixing you, capturing you. Naming you. So don’t waste a lifetime wondering who you are. Listen for your nickname.

This article appears in the April 2023 print edition with the headline “Ode to Nicknames.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.