What is in a Nickname?

Ah, once again, it seems, I’ve pissed off the Brits.

Recently, my husband, the Amazing Bob, and I went to London. From Geneva, it’s an hour-long flight, followed by an eternity stuck in rush-hour traffic. Yet as our voluptuous British taxi jerked and crawled through the streets, we were dazzled. Before us stood Buckingham Palace.

“Hey look,” I giggled, “it’s Lizzie and Phil’s place.”

Of course, I was kidding. Bob gave a little laugh. But our cab driver cleared his throat and glared at me viciously in the rear-view mirror.

England may be the birthplace of Monty Python, Fry and Laurie, Eddie Izzard, “Blackadder,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” and much of the most brilliant and irreverent comedy of the past fifty years. Yet even in the honking, headache-inducing congestion of London, it seems that one must never refer to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip as “Lizzie and Phil.”

As an American abroad, I’m generally very conscientious about not perpetuating the negative stereotypes associated with us. I speak softly, avoid wearing tank tops and shorts, say “please” in the native languages, and never complain about no ice in my Coke. But the one habit I can’t seem to shake is treating the aristocracy like regular people.

If Bob and I visit a 19th century palace of the former Baron Von So-and-So, I find myself wise-cracking, “Hey, check out the crib.” If we’re ushered reverently into some rococo tomb of Great King Austerbottom, I’ll whisper to Bob: So, like, what was up with this guy? And if I see a picture of Prince Charles? I can’t help it. “Hey, look,” I’ll grin. “It’s Chuckie!”

Let’s be fair: the English themselves are guilty of nicknames, too: “Princess Di” and “Fergie,” for starters. In their tabloids, Michael Jackson was gleefully rechristened “Wacko Jacko,” Madonna is “Madge”; Paul McCartney, “Mac,” David Beckham, “Becks.”

But those who are to the realm born? That’s different.

Of course, in the States, if some foreigner called President Obama “Barry,” I probably wouldn’t be thrilled, either. But in general, we Yankees view and use nicknames with extreme generosity.

Nicknaming someone implies that you’re close enough to dispense with formalities. Sure, it can be patronizing. But it can also be a profound expression of affection. Among American men in particular, nicknames are often an ironic sign of respect. Giving another guy a moniker – be it “Otter” or “Snoop Dog” — in a fraternal setting confers acceptance and camaraderie.

When I was in high school, a group of guys who’d grown up together would even give each other nicknames based on embarrassing situations, personal habits, or fuck-ups. For example, they might nickname a guy “Tucks” because he suffered from hemorrhoids and had to use Tucks Anal Wipes. Then “Tucks” would morph into “Tuckie,” which they’d then abbreviate into “’Key.” You’d ask them, “Why do you call him ‘Key’ when his real name is ‘Nathan.’? Oh, it’s a long story, they’d laugh –not unkindly. And here’s the real kicker: “Key” would actually refer to himself as “Key,” too, instead of Nathan. It was a badge of honor. “Key” meant he was accepted, ahem, warts and all.

(In a further an aside, do I even need to say that we women don’t do this? If our friend Amelia suffers from terrible menstrual cramps, we’d never dream of nicknaming her “Kotex.” Nor do we go around in a group saying, “I’m PP, and this is my friend we call ‘Bra Strap,’ and that’s Dip-Z, Cocktail Shaker, Donuts, and Boyhound.”)

But I digress…

Back to Lizzie and Phil.

Herein lies the rub. In America, nicknames confer intimacy and familiarity. And in this way, they are wildly democraticizing. If Prince Charles is “Chuckie,” then suddenly, you don’t really see him as the future King of England. He’s more like your next door neighbor or the guy at Home Depot. He’s “Chuckie from the block.” And this, to Americans, is not an insult. Yes, it’s a debunking of the aristocracy. But we Yankees believe that this is a good thing – a necessary correction of an antiquated, unjust order, in fact—and that being “down home” and “keeping it real” are so much better. We’re a country, after all, that maintains that anyone can grow up to be president – and in which everyone insists they “just want to be treated like everyone else.”

What’s more, we Americans consider it the ultimate compliment to say that someone’s “just an average guy, “ one of us,” an “everyman,” a “regular Joe.” Reality TV and celebrity worship aside, being mainstream in America is as good as it gets: We’ll say admiringly: they’re just all-American, apple pie.

Certainly, we insist on this in our leaders. Never mind if they can understand geopolitics, nuclear fusion, and Latin. For better or worse, they need to appear accessible, friendly, and down-to-earth, too. They should be someone we’d like to have a beer with. Do they feel our pain? Have a great homemade cookie recipe? If we do give them a nickname, are they a good sport about it? Being perceived as stuffy is the kiss of death for a politician in America. Wanna slander them? Say they speak French. Worse yet, say they’re “part of the elite.”

Which in Britain, of course, is precisely what the royals are. As Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth is above the law, a separate entity, privileged at birth simply by virtue of her royal bloodlines. She must never behave — nor be regarded in any way — as a “regular Josephine.”

We Americans, of course, hate this idea. We like to believe that everyone is born equal. Who cares if your great-great-grandfather was Lord Pemberton Vestige Himmelhead Pippycock? That was, like, two hundred years ago. What have you done for us lately?

And so, when I see Buckingham Palace – where the very nobility Americans rebelled against over two hundred years ago resides to this day — I guess I can’t help it. My first impulse as a Yankee — encoded perhaps in my cultural DNA — is to reduce the inhabitants inside to “Lizzie and Phil” – you know, just another couple from the Rotary Club.

I mean it in jest, with playfulness and affection. (In fact, let’s be honest – nobody on earth feels as much goodwill and admiration towards the Brits as us Yanks. We’re unabashed fans). And yet, my cheekiness is also an inadvertent shot fired across a proverbial bow. It’s a little bit of Lexington and Concord all over again.

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  1. fivecats

    a few things here:

    first, your biggest mistake was likely in (a) pointing out Windsor Castle and thus marking you as tourists — and, worst, (b) doing so in an American accent.

    we yanks can be an endless source of (entertainment and) annoyance to foreigners of all stripes, as your valiant attempts at intentionally not living up to American Stereotypes abroad indicates. (when we were in the UK i did my part by wearing Canadian-labeled outerwear, but that’s another story)

    i think one of our perceived annoyances comes from a general disrespect for All Things Fill in Country Name Here. your attempt at jovial nicknames for The Royals fell squarely into this camp with your driver, imho.

    if a foreigner had driven past the White House and said, “Look, there’s Barry and ‘Chelly!” i’m not sure what my reaction would have been — once i figured out who they were referring to. i think part of my reaction would have been based on how they said it (inflection, tone, etc) but a part of it would have been slightly negative because they were Outsiders who felt privileged enough to use the Familiar when addressing my country’s leaders.

    “Tuck”, “Tuckie”, and “Key” were all names used, initially, within a given circle. Once Nathan chose to use that name himself (likely as a defense mechanism in an attempt to gain some control over a hurtful term) it became acceptable within a wider circle.

    if you had driven past The Princess Diana Memorial and said, “Look, it’s the Princess Di” that would have been acceptable. The Brits referred to her as Princess Di, a term of endearment. It became their national way of taking her to heart and humanizing that small section of The Royals. (the same with Fergie) because the Brits did this as a nation i think that’s about as close to having Diana refer to herself in the same way as Nathan did with “Key”.

    basically, i think the American reputation, both geo-politically and tourist-individually, tends to be so negative that anyone who interacts with a lot of us all but expects us to be rude, in some way, while we are with them.

    that’s my guess, at any rate.

  2. Chantal

    Great post. Speaking of names, as a fellow American in Switzerland, I was extremely put off to share a wall with my neighbor and still not have the honor of knowing her first name for over a year. We Americans are so casual with names I get uncomfortable with people who aren’t.

    And I prefer that Americans call me by a nickname. Because unlike the Swiss, they sure as heck can’t pronounce “Chantal”.

    On a different note, I really enjoyed “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.” What a trip you had! Thanks for the great read.

  3. Todd from Woodstock

    “our cab driver cleared his throat and glared at me viciously in the rear-view mirror.”

    -Probably just trying to get another look at the sexy broad in the back seat. Carry on.

  4. Jenn

    What a great post. It’s interesting (and fun!)to hear somebody experience the same cultural differences I’ve been stumbling through for the past year, first in Italy and now Germany. My mechanism for coping with the culture shock is almost always humor, frequently of the ‘Phil and Lizzie’ variety. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Stephen

    As a Brit living in Canada I chuckled at this;

    “it’s Lizzie and Phil’s place”

    A true Brit would have called them “Liz and Phil the Greek”! The cab driver is typical of a growing minority of grumpy Londoners, just wait until the 2012 Olympics to see how grumpy one city can be.

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