“Is it Matt or Matthew?”
Nearly all my life, I have faced this question. More than a courtesy, it is a challenge, a demand: “Identify yourself.”
In my childhood, I was lost and unsure. Who am I? Am I that guy who carelessly shortens his name, soiling the greatest gift, after life, his parents have given him? Or am I that guy who insists on being called by his proper name, like some pompous Alexander or Maximilian?
Several years, crises, and epiphanies later, I’m pleased to say that I have found the perfect answer.
“Call me whatever you want. Seriously, think of a nickname or something.”
Bull’s-eye! A one-two punch, and he’s down for the count! You can put it on the board…YES! I’m free, finally free, from labels, from this false Matt-Matthew dichotomy that plagues we who bear this name!
“Wait, um…uh, what do you want to be called?” I hear.
What’s this? You mean they still don’t get it? Ugh, all right. Then let me explain.
I love nicknames. I’ve never understood why some people hate them; but then again, it’s hard to make fun of my name, unlike J00b-Ass, Sext-On, or Lost-In Da-Butts.
Okay, so maybe offending others with names is easier than I thought. But I never saw nicknames as weapons; instead, they were always symbols of affection.
I likely thought this way because my dad did most of my nicknaming growing up, making some of the more unique contributions to my collection. But more on that later.
First, let’s go back to the beginning, and to that eternal question: “Matt or Matthew?” The fact is that I really don’t know which I like better, or if I even prefer one to the other. They’re just—different.
Matt is the cool kid with the spiky hair who plays the bass; Matthew is the lanky nerd who wears short-sleeved button-downs. It’s almost as if, just by having different names, they have different personalities. It’s like—like—
“I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘nominative determinism,’” Matthew says.
Yes! Nominative determinism. There was a good Nass article about that the other week (“The Wolf Speaks,” by Ben Jubas).
“Wait. Dude. You actually read that whole thing? Boooring.” Matt says.
Hey, that’s not nice. Anyway, what are you guys doing here? This is my article!
“Don’t be silly,” Matthew says, chuckling. “We’re you, remember?”
Oh, yeah. Great. Make yourselves at home.
I have more nicknames than I can count, each one with, to some extent, its own character. I assure you I don’t suffer from multiple personality disorder; I’m just a complicated person, like everyone else. But anyway, this whole ordeal goes back to my dad, as I said before.
My father grew up around Polish-Jewish parents who spoke to each other only in Yiddish. Though he was never fluent in the language, he picked up its unique sounds, and when I came around, he slowly began putting them in nicknames invented on a whim. Hence “Mattyboy” begot “Motenyochel,” “Moonthelalala,” and one of my favorites, “Bloshnoshch.”
“Oh no. Do you hear that?” Matthew says, trembling.
Ululations pierce the air. Out of the sudden fog emerge huddles of men dressed in colorful wool caps, embroidered shirts, and breeches.
“Oh God. Here they come,” Matt says, brandishing his bass guitar.
“Cześć! I am Bloshnoshch. These are my brothers, Motenyochel and—”
What is going on here?! Where are all these people coming from?
“—Moonthelalala. We mean you no harm.”
All right, that’s it. You guys can do what you want, just…stop interrupting me. Where was I? Ah, yeah. My dad’s nicknames were just the beginning. Later, my brothers got involved, and by then I was so used to receiving nicknames that I offered everyone the freedom to think of their own. Once my friends realized I was serious, they, too, started contributing.
Every name was unique, tied to some experience or time: “August Rush,” since I apparently used to look like him; “Su Bo,” after I took Chinese one summer; “Mateusz,” after my brother started learning Polish. “Matty” only recently joined the rotation; I used to know a girl named Maddy, so I always thought it was a girl’s name. “Bieber” no longer applied, thank God, once I started keeping my hair short.
“ENOUGH! WE GET IT!” Matt shouts over the awful din of sweaty Polish diplomats and teen pop-star knockoffs.
“What he’s trying to say,” Matthew yells, “Is that as long as you keep naming names, these guys will keep coming.”
All right, all right. What I’m trying to say is that nicknames, when used properly, aren’t supposed to make someone feel ashamed of their name. Nicknames are about the bond that two people can have when they’re close enough to really know each other. When we first meet people, we get their names wrong because we don’t know them, but we mangle our best friends’ names because we do know them, and the memories and personalities behind those meaningless identifiers. And nicknames are nostalgic; they conjure those experiences or feelings or personality traits that form the core of a close relationship. When I think of the name “Mothew,” I think of my dad bathing the infant me, singing Matt Monro’s “Born Free,” but replacing all the lyrics with this particular nickname.
People have the right to choose what they’ll be called, but they shouldn’t always be so rigid about it, and they shouldn’t necessarily expect others to be.
That’s just how I feel, though I don’t know how I’d feel if one of you came up to me and called me Motenyochel. And there is a part of my name for which I’ll accept no substitutes.
“Look closely: it’s S-I-L-B-as-in-boy-E-R-M-A-N!”
“Last name. Fourth letter. Look closely: B, not V.”