One memorable Sunday morning in the first grade, the woman signing me in at First Christian Assembly in Cincinnati asked me for my name. In a moment of youthful spontaneity, I told her, “Jack. Everybody can call me Jack.”
She printed me a name-tag that read, “Jack Bohlender.” For weeks, my Sunday School name-tag said “Jack,” and for weeks, I hated it. That was the last time I ever asked to be called Jack. Nearly fifteen years later, I still hate it. Don’t call me Jack, ever. It makes me grumpy.
Nicknames are tricky. They’re either spot-on or terribly off, and for that reason, hold the power to either endear or alienate. There’s something truly annoying about being called by a nickname you dislike. It triggers both a bitter distaste for fake familiarity and a profound longing to be known.
While a good nickname might leave the subject with warm fuzzies, a bad one leaves them with a twinge of resentment and a nagging relational emptiness as they think to themselves, “Gosh, I wish they would’ve gotten that one right.” (If you’ve ever called me Jack, rest assured: whether or not I voiced them, I’ve had all of these thoughts about you.)
In contrast, a well-placed nickname can work wonders if it carries the right amount of weight. Even if you don’t like nicknames, almost everyone has one that hits the sweet-spot of their own personality, that one that makes them smile.
For me, that name is “Jacks.” Even though it’s but one letter away from the nickname that I detest so vociferously, there’s something about “Jacks” that will always warm my heart. It’s not a permanent nickname. No one uses it for me exclusively – some of my closest friends don’t even use it at all – but it does seem to come out casually among those who know me the best.
“Proud of you, Jacks.”
“Jacks, pass the potatoes.”
“Don’t know how to tell you this, Jacks, but you’re out of your mind.”
Something about that extra “s” tips the nickname scale for me. It’s intimately unique, and yet widely applicable. When I was a project manager for IHOP–KC‘s marketing team, Steve, Mallory, and Lala would use it with an “x” when we opened up a new print project.
“Jax, let’s shoot to send this to print next week.”
“This calls for more coffee. Jax?”
“Jax, we need to get a P.Q. rolling on this pronto.”
What’s amazing to me here is, even though I like the name “Jackson,” the simple removal of that last syllable makes a small piece of my heart, deep down in there, leap with joy every time I hear it. In that split second, I feel more known; heard, than usual, and that’s the power of a properly-used nickname.
The next time you assign a nickname, please take all of this into at least moderate consideration. Think about the linguistic complexities that often lie silent between the characters in our three- or four-syllable names. What our names already say about us, and what they’ve yet to explain. Ask yourself: Is a nickname necessary here? Can I make it better? Can I make it count?
Above all, please just never call me Jack.