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Nicknames from the last century

I've been thinking about the way girls in the early 20th century of a certain class/ethnic group all had nicknames of a certain type.  Inspired by today's NYTimes obituary for Aurelia Clifton Brown, born 1925, Ardmore, Pennsylvania - known as "Thistle"!  

Ardmore (which happens to be the name of the street I grew up on) is right near Bryn Mawr (where I went to college for 2 years) - and for years our Alumnae Magazine was full of the exploits - and then the deaths - of a generation or two of women christened things like Aurelia and Gertrude, but sporting nicknames like Wiggsy and Kitten and Ralph - and, later, Muffin and Bitsy.... (I think "Thistle" caps them all, though!  Why wasn't I named Thistle?).

So:  Do you have any such nicknames in your family?  May I know/steal them?

The novel I'm working on - which draws on aspects of the great and prolific Mary Roberts Rinehart's hilarious & educational classic, BAB: A SUB-DEB* (readable/downloadable here!) - but is set in & around Riverside about 15 years after TPOTS, with a new cast of young main characters (and a bunch of annoying adults you've met before, when they were much younger) . . . . well, in my efforts to make sure that my imaginary city remains a big old MASHUP (because I always wanted it to partake of the best of many periods without belonging to any one of them), I was thinking of giving the girls nicknames like that.  Only different.  I mean... Thistle! Does it get any better?

But does anyone know how this custom started?  I suspect it has something to do with English girls' schools - and I know some of you are experts on the literature of that tradition! - and I also know it wasn't prevalent in, say, 1820 (was it?) . . . any theories of what happened?  Did it have something to do with being more like boys?

And do you choose your own? is it given by other girls? does it come to school with you already from your family?

I don't promise to do this, in the end.  But it will be fun to learn!

*Is it fair also, I ask, that in the best society, a girl is a Sub-Deb
the year before she comes out
, and although mature in mind, and even
maturer in many ways than her older sister, the latter is treated as a
young lady, enjoying many privileges, while the former is treated as a
mere child, in spite, as I have observed, of only 20 months difference? ....

.... I was too strictly raised. I always had a Governess taging along.
Until I came here to school I had never walked to the corner of the next
street unattended. If it wasn't Mademoiselle it was mother's maid, and
if it wasn't either of them, it was mother herself, telling me to hold
my toes out and my shoulder blades in. As I have said, I never knew any
of the Other Sex, except the miserable little beasts at dancing school.
I used to make faces at them when Mademoiselle was putting on my
slippers and pulling out my hair bow. They were totaly uninteresting,
and I used to put pins in my sash, so that they would get scratched. ....

When I was sent away to school, I expected to learn something of life.
But I was disapointed. I do not desire to criticize this Institution of
Learning. It is an excellent one, as is shown by the fact that the best
Families send their daughters here. But to learn life one must know
something of both sides of it, Male and Female.....
                                                          -- from BAB: A SUB-DEB


( 89 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 25th, 2012 02:38 am (UTC)
My mother's name, from college on until death, was Boo. (Only a tiny handful of people called her anything else.) It is a college nickname -- Wellesley -- derived from her last name, which was Booze.

My friends Jeanne and Nancy were known, respectively, as Bean and Goat from kindergarten on. (They called me Schmell. Still do, for that matter.)

My uncle, Ralph, was called Bud. (Buddy, when he was a youth).

My uncle Lorenzo was also called Bud. (I found this very confusing as a child....)

My uncle Krag was called Krag. But that was actually his name....

--EK of the West
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:56 am (UTC)
Re: Nicknames
Wonderful - thank you, EK!
Feb. 25th, 2012 02:43 am (UTC)
My Nana was Kit, Kitty, or Kitten, due to her initials being MEW.

My Papa and his best friend called each other James O and WW.

My Nana had a friend who went by "Dinny." I have no idea the etymology of that.

A friend's grandmother answered to "Moo."
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:56 am (UTC)
MEW - ha! Excellent.
Feb. 25th, 2012 02:50 am (UTC)
My mother's mother's line had an alternating generational name scheme of Martas and Martitas. (The latter being nicknamed Tita.) My mother was nicknamed Tunky. (Which devolved from pumpkin, her being a red head.)

But! dalbino83 is historian/collector of thinkgs having to do with Mount Holyoke. And she has all kinds of year books and correspondence from that period.
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:55 am (UTC)
Great etyomology for "Tunky" - who'd'a thunk it? Thanks!
Feb. 25th, 2012 02:56 am (UTC)
My Great Aunt Collie (pronounce Coe-lee) - who would have gone to college, about 1905 - her name was actually Catherine, which I didn't know until I was in my 20's - Collie was short for Colthurst, her maident name. It was the fashion for college girls of the day, according to my mother and I'd bet it was simply a variation of the old formal custom of referring to scholars by surname. Don't they still do that in English public schools? (I'm not a fan but I'll bet Snape doesn't call that Potter boy by his first name).

EDT: I'd check Wodehouse for some serious nicknames.

Edited at 2012-02-25 02:59 am (UTC)
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:28 am (UTC)
Yes!! The college/scholars thing makes perfect sense.
Feb. 25th, 2012 03:35 am (UTC)
My mother (still living) is named Katharine (with an A in the middle).

She acquired Deedi later morphing to Dee from her maiden name, Dederick. In order to get that spelled correctly, you spell it like this D-E-D {pause) E (pause) R-I-C-K. She got it in boarding school.

Some of the nicknames had to do with repetition of family names - how to distinguish the many Ruths, Graces, Lucilles, etc.

I've also wondered if the persistence of nicknames is partially a clinging to a version of the name one was born with.
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:54 am (UTC)
Very useful on all counts, thanks!
Feb. 25th, 2012 03:51 am (UTC)
My mother, whose given name is Laura, acquired "Didi" almost from birth. Seems my aunt, who was only a year older, was trying to pronounce "baby" and it stuck. She also later called herself D2 (my mother's degree is in mathematics).
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:54 am (UTC)
Love it!
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:06 am (UTC)
These San Francisco Barbary Coast folks have some delightful nicknames: Lost Chicken, Galloping Cow, and Roaring Gimlet. I don't make these things up. See below:

Feb. 25th, 2012 04:07 am (UTC)
My great grandmother was Mabel, called Mumu.
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:10 am (UTC)
I was sent to a girls school (the National Cathedral School for Girls) and can attest to That Class still retaining the custom of nicknames.

One girl I knew was nicknamed Wren because of her small size. One was Babs, a Barbara. Noell, my best friend to this day, is nicknamed Nonnie. There were others, but my mind isn't working tonight. Most of them are on my FB -- I will peruse them, and I'm sure I'll remember some weirder nicknames than Wren.

My grandmother was Flossie (from Florence). Flossie Muirhead. Poor woman. :P

The girls school, prep school, nicknaming really does still exist. And the distinction between sub-deb and deb does, to a degree, though less than when I was a teenager. We were clearly distinguished between the seniors, who had become debs.

Our NCS Flag Day Graduation ceremony is right out of the past: the graduation seniors all wear floor-length white dresses (almost ballgowns) and carry a dozen long-stem red roses, and the ceremony is held outdoors on the lawn in front of the north transcept of the National Cathedral, which soars above. If you go to the NCS website, there are pictures of the current classes: ours was more old-fashioned, but the tradition continues.

By the way, when we graduate, we are bequeathed two privileges for the Cathedral: We can sit in the proper medieval choir stalls for any service we wish to attend, at any time, and we are allowed to have our wedding held in the Cathedral.

One other tradition may pique your interest: On the Ides of March, the boys senior class from St. Albans and the girls senior class from NCS switch roles. The boys go to classes in the girls uniforms, and the girls in the boys.


Feb. 25th, 2012 04:50 am (UTC)
... they didn't tell me that when I was applying to/touring NCS!
(no subject) - ellen_kushner - Feb. 25th, 2012 06:02 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:26 am (UTC)
Everyone in my mother's family was known by their nicknames. The girls were Tootie, Snookie and Mare. And the brothers were Onk and Chaw.

Edited at 2012-02-25 04:27 am (UTC)
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:27 am (UTC)
Oh, those are too good! Do you know where those names came from?
(no subject) - heartofoshun - Feb. 25th, 2012 04:33 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ellen_kushner - Feb. 25th, 2012 05:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heartofoshun - Feb. 25th, 2012 05:58 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:31 am (UTC)
Better quality text at Project Gutenberg.
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:52 am (UTC)
Ah; there *would* be. Thanks!
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:35 am (UTC)
I have no actual helpful remark, but you are reminding me again of the great mystery of L. M. Montgomery's splendid novel The Blue Castle -- Why is a girl named Valancey called "Doss" by her entire family?

Feb. 25th, 2012 06:01 am (UTC)
I was thinking exactly this re: Valancy!

Nicknames are a huge part of life in Bengali culture but would be completely unhelpful as far as naming folks in Riverside. Indian culture at large often includes ones like "Dimple" and "Pinkie" which I've always found faintly ludicrous, but perhaps not more so than those of Scotland which apparently include things like Peasie, Noonie, Bunty, Lassie, and so on...
(no subject) - dichroic - Feb. 25th, 2012 11:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:48 am (UTC)
The joys of working with family and the aunts and uncles who knew you since you were five means I still get called chicklet, peapod, and... mm. What other names did I have?

The other aunts and my mother call me by Spanish nicknames since my family's bilingual, which may not be so helpful.
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:16 am (UTC)
My grandmother, whose given name may or may not have been "Jan" or "Janet", was called "Jency" by all who knew her. She came of a family of four girls and a boy. The boy, sad to say, acquired the nickname "Brother" quite early in life, and that stuck with him. Poor kid.
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:42 am (UTC)
Repetition of family (first) names is a sensible reason for nicknames, and I've seen nicknames based on middle names in the alumni magazines, along with the more mysterious kind. But Jews don't use the names of living family members, so no repeats, and perhaps therefore no imaginative nicknames. My dear offspring have three Hebrew names apiece, in honor of half-a-dozen departed ones, but they're all quite standard names.
Feb. 25th, 2012 05:53 am (UTC)
Interesting point - thanks!
tangential - (Anonymous) - Feb. 25th, 2012 12:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
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