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Nicknames: How Do You Turn Phoebe Into Wobeson?

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Novelist Joanne Lessner guest blogs about the family nicknaming tradition that can turn any upstanding name into something much more ridiculous.

My family loves words. We make them up, we pun incessantly, and we number several lyricists among us. We’re really rather annoying. But possibly the most vexing trait we exhibit, at least to those on the receiving end, is the generations-long tradition of an older sibling blighting a younger one with a ridiculous and, to the uninitiated, mystifying nickname.

We are nothing if not consistent in our weirdness. Our nicknames are all preceded by the definite article. For example, long before there was Rupert, there was my mother, nicknamed The Grint by her older brother. How, you may reasonably ask, did my Uncle John get The Grint from Helen? Apparently, she grinned a lot, and my uncle, misunderstanding the word, started calling her The Grinter, which he then shortened. My mother hated it, but as Helen was the 24th most popular name for girls born in 1941, my grandmother found it useful for getting her attention in a crowded store.

I can tell you how my sister Katherine became The Lool, since I’m the perpetrator of that misdeed. When she was born, she made noises that, to my four year-old ears, sounded like “la, la, la.” I started calling her The La Baby, which evolved into The Loolie La and, eventually, The Lool. In high school, she tried to use it to her advantage: “If you buy me a car, I’ll put Lool on the license plate.” She didn’t get the car, but she did finally give in and proudly own her nickname, adding party hats and other holiday flourishes to her signature the way Google now does. At her insistence, my children call her Aunt Lool.

Which brings me to the current generation. My daughter’s name is Phoebe. Who knew what a wealth of nicknames that would inspire! By the age of nine, she has racked up Phloebus, Phoebalicious, Phoebicent, Phoebazoid, Phoebelocity, and the adjectival Phoebibbian. And, following in the fine family tradition, her older brother Julian has landed her with The Wobe. Phoebe became Phobe, became Dobe, became Wobe, with all the accompanying diminutives: Wobecint, Wobobulous, Wobeson, and Mrs. Wobesonberry. Wobeson, in particular, amuses me. (I was so taken with it, I even gave it to a minor character in my novel as a last name.) It rather puts me in mind of ladies’ maids in English novels, who typically go by their last names.

“Wobeson!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll wear the green tweed traveling suit, today.”

“Very good, ma’am.”

Curiously, parental attempts to saddle the older children with nicknames have been unsuccessful. Maybe we first-borns are naturally more assertive, but I rejected The Weakel (from Squeaky Weakel), and Julian long ago sent back The Sport as a mailer-daemon. You might think that the younger sibs would stage an uprising and coin nicknames for us in retaliation, but strangely, that hasn’t happened either.

Recently, however, Phoebe put her foot down and now refuses answer to anything that rhymes with “obe.” The only nickname she has sanctioned is Pheebs, which came not from us, but from her friends. Whenever I slip, I’m met with a steely glare.

Secretly, I’m glad that she’s showing the mettle to forge her own nomenclatural identity. Do you remember The Simpsons episode when Homer and Marge are naming Bart? They troubleshoot all the possible nicknames, “Art, Bart, Cart, Dart, E-art…nah, it’s fine.” The point is no matter how hard you try to avoid a silly nickname, somebody will think of something you didn’t anticipate. And in my family, at least, if you’re a younger sibling, all bets are off.

Joanne Sydney Lessner is the author of Pandora’s Bottle (Flint Mine Press, 2010), a novel inspired by the true story of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine. The character of Jack Wobeson first appears on page 152.

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