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Why do we love to give people and places nicknames?

What’s in a nickname?

Corruption, initially. Which is not to say that there is anything inherently dishonest about nicknames; the history of the word stems from an error. Originally “an eke-name”, meaning an additional name, “a neke name” formed out of an incorrect word division that blended the noun with its indefinite article. By the late Middle English era, “a nickname” became a known variant.

It may seem fairly obvious why we tend to use nicknames so pervasively. They are informal, usually easy to say, and a little lazy—as though uttering a person’s proper name takes too much effort. But there’s also a little more going on in our propensity to assign monikers to ourselves and to others. A name is an extremely large part of who we are. It is what we use to identify ourselves to others as well as what others use in order to recognize us. A nickname, therefore takes this public acknowledgment of that with which we are familiar to another level. There is a hint of possession in nicknaming someone—one can claim the right to a piece of a person’s identity by naming them—and of pride, in having gained a sense of authority in having done so. For the name-holder, it’s a chance to have control in an area where it severely lacks, since one’s birth name is decided by somebody else (usually one’s parents).

From Ol’ Blue Eyes to The Governator

In society, nicknames can be both beneficial and pose a threat. Particularly for children, they help those burdened by the stuffy or bloated legacy names that are passed down generation to generation, as well as those whose names are hard to pronounce or have creative, unintuitive spellings. On the other hand, it is widely known how cruel school-age children can be to their peers. One damning nickname uttered by the class bully can follow a child well into young-adulthood. Some grown-ups don’t have it any easier. For every “Bambino” and “Ol’ Blue Eyes” that makes its way into the zeitgeist, there’s also “Slick Willy” and “The Governator” to contend with. No matter how hard some people try, certain nicknames are just inescapable.

When assigning a nickname to a place or object, change and finality seem more flexible. Perhaps this has something to do with there only being one side to the exchange; an item like a lollipop can’t accept or reject “lolly” or “sucker”, for example. Similarly, place names often vary depending on political, regional, or cultural ideologies.

A mapping of monikers

Some state governments in the US, whether to promote tourism, civic pride, or recognize unique historical achievements, align their constituents toward certain values by legislating official state nicknames. Wyoming, the Equality State, is so nicknamed after the state’s progressive stance on women’s rights, which includes being the first state in the nation to grant women the right to vote. New York, on the other hand, faces the burden of living up to its wealth-valued nickname, the Empire State. In an attempt to woo tourists to the hot and dry Southwest, New Mexico officials changed its nickname to the alluring “Land of Enchantment.” North Dakota adopted the Peace Garden State in 1957, and the Midwest state remains so nicknamed even after the government tried to rename it the “Roughrider State” in order to attract tourists by highlighting the state’s history with Teddy Roosevelt.

The Revolutionary and Civil Wars in America also served as inspiration for several state nicknames. Alabama is the Yellowhammer State, not because of the bird exactly, but because this was the nickname of a group of Confederate soldiers from the state who wore yellow cloth adorned on their arms. Colorado, which became a state 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, is known as the Centennial State.

And so it goes for 50 states: natural resources and landmarks (Idaho’s Gem State, Arizona’s Grand Canyon State), manifest destiny (Alaska’s Last Frontier State, Oklahoma’s Sooner State), and even humor (Missouri’s Show Me State) provide a veritable tour of a nation in nicknames. America itself is a nickname—one that the US edition of New Hart’s Rules is quick to remind us only to use in place of the United States when the context is clear (less we upset its continental neighbors to the north or south). Though they seem almost trivial beyond a small-scale, interpersonal level, nicknames can be a great source of regional and national identity.