On Nicknames and Wearing Black at Funerals by
(12 Stories)

Prompted By Nicknames

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When my cousin adopted an infant, she told me that she had trouble calling her daughter by her actual first name. She called her baby “Pumpkin,” “Sweetheart,” or simply “the baby,” but she had a strong emotional bloc against calling her “Amelia.” When I had my first child, I experienced the same phenomenon, and he was “Critter” for the first thirteen months until he became “Boone,” which is what he is now, thirty-one years later. (More on that below.)

To this day, I still have an array of non-names for my children.

This irrational fear persisted when I had my second and third children, and to this day, I still have an array of non-names for all of them. I would be interested in hearing from other parents as to whether they experienced the same problem.

When Boone turned twelve, he informed me that he was too old to be referred to by that stupid moniker, and I was to give up calling him Boone for Lent. “Oh no!” I cried, horrified. “I can give up chocolate, coffee, doughnuts, and ice cream, but please don’t ask me to call you by your name!” When he insisted, I tried, I prayed, and I went mute, but after three days, he released me from my commitment, and he became Boone again.

I am not a psychologist, but I’ve read enough Jung to know that when an irrational impulse is strong and persists, it often symbolizes some archetypal phenomenon rooted in the collective unconscious. These impulses exist outside the conscious control of the rational part of the brain; in other words, they don’t listen to reason. So when I started thinking about why I cannot call my kids by their names—the names that I chose for them after sifting through “5,000 Adorable Names for Babies”—I wondered whether this fear stemmed from a time when parents believed in the power of the evil eye to put curses on their children and the ability of the devil to come and snatch them from their cradles. Maybe if you said your baby’s name out loud, any passing demon might overhear and say, “Hmm, gee, I could use another John for my collection. I’ll just grab this one and off I go.” Or if the demon had a bone to pick with you in particular, he might say, “Oh, yeah, that’s Farmer Joseph’s daughter. He pissed me off the other day, so I’ll just take wee Margaret as my revenge.” Given the high rate of infant mortality and the lack of understanding of basic cleanliness and nutrition, demon kidnappings were perhaps a reasonable explanation. And any parent knows that when you gaze upon your new little bundle of joy, you are often seized with irrational fears for the safety and vulnerability of that child. Modern science be damned.

This deep-seated fear of demons was the basis for other contemporary customs, such as wearing black at funerals. I read somewhere that the tradition started not because black is a somber, depressing color, but because black clothes were a disguise. Suppose the dead guy was a bad person, destined for Hell. When the Devil came to take his soul to everlasting torment, you didn’t want the Evil One to recognize you among the mourners and, as above, say, “Oh, look, there’s Mistress Agatha, I’ll just snatch her soul, too, and save myself a trip.” The Devil hopefully wouldn’t recognize you if you weren’t wearing your normal clothes.

So how did my first child become “Boone”? He had a significant speech delay, and while other toddlers were learning meaningful human language by listening to it, he was repeating nonsense syllables if he spoke at all. That was in the late 1980s, when nobody knew about high-functioning autism, or what he turned out to have, a condition called hyperlexia, whereby a child learns to communicate through written language because he is a slow auditory processor. (Hyperlexia is on the autism spectrum, but the prognosis is much more positive.) This condition, thanks to computers and screen addiction, is more commonplace today, but it was quite rare in those days. Boone was obsessed with the alphabet and could decode virtually any word by the age of two, but meaningful speech came much later. It was as if he knew that those black squiggles on paper meant something important whereas those sounds floating into his ears meant nothing to his brain.

Whenever he said anything, we celebrated it as a gift, and we started repeating all of his nonsense words, fashioning meanings out of them. One of his favorite utterances was “Ah-KEY, ah-KEY, ah-KEY, dee-BOONE, dee-BOONE, dee-BOONE,” over and over, day after day. Pretty soon, I was calling him “De Boone,” which evolved into his nickname, “The Boone.”

Because of his fascination with the written word, buying him early computer programs, such as Reader Rabbit, was a natural, and we picked as his screen name “Boone88,” then out of family solidarity, his dad’s screen name became “Boone48” and I was “Boone50,” in honor of our birth years. When my daughter was born in 1992, she immediately became “Little Boone,” and my son became “Big Boone.” Therefore, our screen names evolved into “BBoone88,” “DBoone48,” “MBoone50,” and eventually “LBoone92.” But this was years ago, and you can imagine my surprise when I first logged into Retrospect (using who-knows-what other program, I don’t remember) and somehow the computer identified me as “MBoone50.”  It wasn’t my choice. The computer did it. Thank goodness Suzy figured out how to retire that name and make me plain old Joan again. At least my out-of-date nickname inspired this week’s prompt and produced some really interesting and entertaining stories.

A final note: Again, as every parent knows, language learning is a two-way street. Normally developing children pick up words from us, but we automatically pick up words from them. One day when Little Boone was casually walking across the living room, Pookie (my third child, who was a year old at the time) pointed to her and announced proudly, “Dada.” I knew enough about infant language to recognize that “Dada” means “significant second person after Mama.” Although this hurt Dad’s feelings, Little Boone became “Dada” from then on, and she is Dada to this day, at age 28. (Dad is “Daddy,” so he wasn’t completely left out.) Shortly thereafter, Pookie proclaimed that Big Boone was “Baba,” and now he has two working, meaningful nicknames. (Little Boone now only has one, because she grew to be five-ten.) Pookie is now five-eleven, eighteen years old, and we are forbidden from ever calling her that in her presence again, but I still think of her as Pookie in the secret recesses of my mind. Some things never change.

Profile photo of Joan Matthews Joan Matthews

Characterizations: , funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Amazing story, Joan, about how all these nicknames evolved. I have heard many of my friends call their grandchildren “the baby” for the first three months of their lives. And, for Jewish girls at least, a naming ceremony doesn’t happen until the three-month period, likely due to the high infant mortality in those old times. Those nicknames fool the Evil Eye!

    • Thanks, Marian! Interesting that the Jewish tradition would wait for three months to hold the naming ceremony. My great-grandmother had sixteen children, and eleven of them died in infancy. I guess, “Not tonight [or any other night], dear” wasn’t an option.

  2. Suzy says:

    Joan, this is a fascinating story! I learned so much from reading it! And I love how the whole family ended up with variations on the Boone nickname. I’m delighted that your computer had a mind of its own and registered you here as mboone50. Otherwise we never would have learned your story, and probably never even thought of this prompt, which has turned out to be great!

    • Thanks, Suzy! I just finished reading your wonderful story. (I missed it the first time I logged on.) I’m impressed that you were more successful in deferring to your children’s wishes to call them what they prefer to be called.

  3. Oh my goodness, what a lovely story, Joan! You write with such warmth and depth — and your analysis of why you may have shied away from “given” names makes perfect sense to me. Boone is a great name, no matter how it came to be but especially how it did come to be. Thanks for inspiring this week’s prompt, it’s been a good one!

  4. I learned so much from your wonderful story! I found your theory about holding off calling your children by their given names to be fascinating. I had never thought how the naming process is so cultural. Since t is customary in Ashkenazi tradition to name a child after a deceased loved one, the opposite seems true in the Jewish tradition. Religious Jews name a boy at his “bris” (circumcision) at 8 days. A girl is named in the synagogue on one of the the days of the week they take out the torah, which can be sooner than a week.

    • It’s so fascinating to read about how cultures traditionally give a baby his or her name and, therefore, an identity. Even though it’s not an official part of my Armenian heritage, I was considering naming my older daughter after her grandmother or great-grandmother. However, the choices were Varteny and Knar. I didn’t want to saddle an American girl either one of those names, even though they must have sounded beautiful to two women long ago.

  5. Fascinating Joan! Thanx for sharing your interesting family nickname story!

    When my son was a baby I sometimes called him Sweet Pie, and so to this day we sometimes call him Pie.
    But as he loves math, we spell it Pi!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this story, Joan. I could really relate to the superstitions surrounding babies, but never thought about it in the context of nicknames warding off the devil. My grandmother used to tie a red ribbon to the baby carriages of her grandchildren and refused to say they were cute. This was to attract the Evil Eye to the ribbon instead of the not-cute baby. I never knew the origins of wearing black to funerals. So interesting. I knew a few hyperlexic children in my days as a preschool director. It was hard for parents to understand that their three-year-old, who could read but not play with others or speak well, needed help to develop language and social skills. We have come a long way. Yours was a fascinating story. Thank you for sharing it.

    • It’s fascinating how the devil is often depicted as someone who is fooled by appearances or bright colors, such as a red ribbon. It would fit, then, that the Evil One would only be interested in physically attractive babies, so you had to make sure not to broadcast your own baby’s cuteness. Thank goodness the Devil is so shallow, or we’d really be in trouble.
      Raising a hyperlexic child was challenging, but most of them turned out fine, if quirky, once they attached meaning to the words they decoded. (I used to think of Helen Keller at the well, suddenly realizing that those finger configurations had meaning.) Seeing things from the hyperlexic point of view even had its own humor. When my son was just learning to attach meaning to words, he suddenly burst out laughing in the back seat of the car. Always reading every sign he saw, he said, “Look, parking for ten ants only! Ants live there?”

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Joan, a truly lovely, interesting story. I love and learned so much in it; the part about why we wear black to funerals (back in the Middle Ages, white was the color that royalty wore, so there is a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, after her first, French husband died, called “The White Queen”).

    As has been noted above, we Jews of Eastern European descent name our children after deceased loved ones so the Angel of Death won’t get confused and come for the wrong person (as might happen if the there was a John, Jr, or John III in the family).

    I also love that your computer initially picked up your old nickname (which is why John Z had to tell me who you were, before Suzy figured out a way to change your screen name). Thank you for sharing your vivid history and the wonderful prompt idea.

    • I hadn’t heard the justification for naming babies after a deceased relative. I thought it was to keep their memory alive, so they would “live on.” But fooling the Angel of Death makes a lot of sense.

      I had no idea that this prompt would lead to so many interesting and informative stories. I still don’t know how “Mboone50” resurfaced, but I guess it served one final purpose and can now fade away.

  8. I really enjoyed this, Joan. Most informative. The notion of “what’s in a name” certainly applies in spades to proper names. With the possible exception of Rumpelstiltskin.

  9. John Zussman says:

    Definitely the perfect Nickname story, and beautifully told. You may not be a psychologist, but I am (or at least took the training), and you capture the ramifications perfectly.

    You can go back to mboone50 now if you like!

  10. Oh no, not “Mboone50” ever again!

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