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Nunc Dimittis

Narfie Noodle

On nicknames. 


One night in my college dorm room, my best friend, looking a bit embarrassed, made a confession. No one had ever given him a nickname, and he wanted one. Another friend sitting nearby blurted out “Chip Whitley,” and by force of will and constant repetition, we made it stick.

Chip was the first person I helped nickname. My family didn’t often give out monikers, though my sister Monica did go by “Mon.” My parents used “buddy” and other common pet names for me, but nothing unique ever stuck. My stepdad, a wonderful and caring man, called me “doofus” for a while, but my mom didn’t let that continue for long.

In first grade, my teacher referred to me often as “Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.” I didn’t get the reference and was perplexed as to why I would have a nickname that includes other people. When I typed the name into Ask Jeeves a few years later, I was confronted by a video of Mark Wahlberg dancing and rapping in only his underwear in front of a crowd at a basketball stadium. I’ve shied away when anyone has called me that since.

My wife, who is half Chinese and was born in the year of the pig, comes from a nicknaming family and has been fondly called “piggie” her whole life. I didn’t realize how much her family’s tradition would influence ours.

It’s a theme of classic literature that learning a name allows one character to begin to understand another. Think of Adam naming the animals or the story of Rumplestiltskin. “Chip Whitley” became what we called my friend when he did something mischievous. It helped us name a part of his personality we hadn’t fully appreciated before. Likewise, biblical figures such as Abram, Jacob, and Saul are renamed after they enter into a covenant with God. If the eyes are the window to the soul, a name can help reveal a person’s identity.

We bought an Irish Setter in 2021 and named her Charley, an homage to John Steinbeck’s blue poodle with whom he traveled America. We haven’t called her that much. Like many pet owners, we have come up with a number of ridiculous names for her: Char-wee, Charley Barley, Charley Barley Puddin’ Pop, Sweetie, Tweetie (because her nasal whining sounds slightly avian), Tweetie Bird, Tweeters, Captain Charley, and Costco (because she’s a hot dog).

Her second birthday, after which most dogs are done growing and begin to act more mature, coincided with the birth of our twins, Arthur and George. We had bestowed new names on Charley as she grew from a puppy with pin-sharp fangs who slept under the couch to an elegantly feathered dog who now spends her days napping on top of it. But since the birth of our twins, we have given her less attention and unintentionally failed to give her a new nickname. Yet from our kids’ days in the hospital we have given them nicknames at a breakneck pace.

Arthur’s progression in the first six months of his life has been: Peanut, Archie, Arfie, Snarfie (he initially had narrow nasal passages and would snort when he cried), Bobcat (because at night he would wail like a bobcat trapped in a box), Narfie, Narf, Narfie Noo, and Narfie Noodle. It is currently “Noodle Poole,” a call back to the final pages of Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, which features a poodle (oddly resembling Steinbeck’s) eating a plate of spaghetti. George’s has been only slightly more conventional: Georgie, George-O, Big Baby, Jojo, Joe, Joey, Joje, Joe-Jee, Doe-Dee. New names are certain to drift only further from their legal ones.

Like Charley before them, each time our kids enter a new stage of growth, they earn new names. My wife keeps the list in her phone. Each calls to mind an era of only a month or two when our babies were very different. It hasn’t been intentional, but these names have served as time stamps. When we call our children names other than the ones by which we plan them to be known, we better appreciate them as they are now.

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Mark Naida is an assistant editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal.