Falsely masculine names

More from David Rakoff’s Half Empty:

At eight years old, in the Canadian Rockies and faced with the prospect of an enclosed gondola that traveled up to the summit of a mountain, I wept in fear, as I was often wont to do, even as I understood myself to be in surroundings of unconscionable majesty and loveliness; magnificent peaks rising through the pine-scented air, with adorable, nut brown chipmunks scampering about. After what must have been a trying interval of patient parental psyching up, I finally marshaled myself and got on. In the snack bar at the top, tears all dried, my father made me a medal in one of those machines that presses letters into a metal disk–part sheriff’s star, part one of those plastic cogs one used to put over the central post in a turntable to play a 45. DAVE THE BRAVE it read. Everything about it was counterfeit, from the rhyming slogan’s required shortening of my name into the falsely masculine Dave, to the lightness of the cheap, soft aluminum, too easily impressed–more thumbprint cookie than Vulcan-struck ingot.

My focus is on Rakoff’s judgment that the nickname Dave is falsely masculine.

Nicknames have several functions in our culture. One is to signal closeness and friendliness (the solidarity dimension, vs. the power dimension); this is what you get from strangers (in particular, salespeople) who try to construct a false intimacy with people not only by using first names, but also by shifting to nicknames (sometimes inappropriately).

But for men’s names, another is to signal masculinity, through the association of full names with formality and nicknames with informality, and the further (weak but real) association of formality (and “correctness” in general) with femininity and informality (and vernacular language in general) with masculinity. There’s an additional association of nicknames with childhood, and full names with adulthood.

But some gay men — like Rakoff — are uncomfortable with the masculinity and childish associations. Not with masculinity in itself, but with what they see as a further association with male heterosexuality, so that nicknames strike them as false, over-butch, when applied to them. As for the childish association, some gay men bridle at being thought of — and often referred to — as boys because they haven’t taken on the responsibilities of men, in particular marriage to a woman and parenthood.

A fair number of my gay friends and acquaintance shifted from childhood nicknames to adult full names at some point when they became comfortable with their homosexuality. So Bob became Robert, Brad became Bradley, and so on.

Many other gay men who grew up with nicknames in everyday use are perfectly happy with them. There’s no one right way.

[For the record, I have always been Arnold and not Arnie. For a while in college — where pretty much everyone had to have a nickname, it was a college guy thing — I was Arn for one roommate and Zot for another. (Zot from the anteater in the cartoon B.C. My father’s college nickname, which became the name his friends, and my mother, used for him throughout much of his life, was Zip, because he confronted life with such zip and enthusiasm; my roommate made a phonetic connection, so for a little while I was Zot son of Zip. My dad was amused.]


One Response to “Falsely masculine names”

  1. Pseudonyms « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] zotling [from my Princeton nickname Zot, from the B.C. cartoon anteater, combined with –ling, the suffix as in princeling, and also […]

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