By any other name

Someone asked me recently “why do your parents call you ‘Bean’?”. Well, that’s a whole other post in and of itself, so I thought I could elaborate a little. “Bean” is a nickname of mine, one in a long line of many illustrious nicknames I have had over the years.

Bean Collage

The first nickname I ever had was the term my Gik used when he saw me for the first time. Ok, I think “Gik” (or “Gikkie”) needs a little explanation in and of itself. I remember once, in primary school trying vainly to explain to my teacher that everyone had a “Gik”. It ended in tears, as usual. You see, “Gikkie” was my grandfather. He used to read the poem “goosey, goosey gander” to my older cousin Paul who, at the time, was unable to pronounce any of the words and so it came out as a gurgled “Gik”. The name stuck.I was born around the time when Gik was having major surgery. My mother would bring me in to see him and, being a baby, she had me all tightly wrapped up so all you could see was the top of my head and my eyes sticking out. I believe he called me “papoose” because I looked like an American Indian child all wrapped up like that.The first nickname I can remember with any clarity is at around the age of 5, it was “Steeeven the weeven the big fat peevin”. Kids are cruel, but rhyming is very important. I remember a lot from those days: the trees on the way to school, my friend Michael Smiley, whose father always seemed to be away on business, Mrs. Which-way, my school principle, who I always envisage with a bright orange hazard cone on her head. I used to call those orange cones “which-ways”. Gik once got me one of my very own.

Then, there’s a period where the nicknames dry up, I am not sure if it’s a failure in my memory or a failure in the people around me to be creative. The next time I was called anything of any note was in high school. As if to make up for the lack of names, I was afforded many.

My physical education (PE) teacher called me “muscles”. It was, of course, intended to be a highly ironic nickname since I had none. In much the same way as Australians will call a red head “bluey”.
Some kids referred to me as “gecko”. In South Africa, a gecko is lizard so translucent that you can see its insides. Since I am so pale you can easily see the veins in my arms, I think that nickname was appropriate.
Some of the Afrikaans kids called me “spook”, which means “ghost”. Once again, that was highly appropriate due to the colour of my skin. It seems that even in apartheid South Africa, there was such a thing as “too white”.

As I have related before, I went through a period where I suffered from a nervous twitch and so was called “hamster”, one of my favourites.
Then there was the rather confusing time when some of the older kids called me “Oz Gool”. “Oz” was a matric (final year of high school) student and I was just starting out, in my first year. Some of Oz’s peers decided that I looked so much like him I must be his brother, so (in a fit of creativity) they gave me his name. They liked to get me to run errands for them or just stand at attention next to Oz just to annoy him. I must admit, I had a bit of a giggle myself.
My closest friends called me “Witherden”. Yes, they were weird. We were all just a little bit weird. I continue to wonder what ever happened to Robert.

Then, at about 15, I moved high schools to Durban and joined a different click. I remember it clearly: I was sitting on the stairs, watching a group of boys, the geeky boys. I knew that was where I belonged in this place. A boy whose name I have sadly forgotten: the leader of the pack, called me over. I was dubbed “Bean” from that moment on because they decided that I looked (and acted) a lot like Mr. Bean. I guess I was gangly, wide-eyed and pulled the occasional odd facial expression. The name stuck. It stuck so well that even my members of family started using it. This is why they call me “Bean” to this day. I don’t have any digital pictures of myself from those days but I do have some from when I was about 20. Regard the collage above and you be the judge.

Another, less common name was “Stanley” from the popular old comedy “Laurel & Hardy” since I was particularly tall for my age.

My music teacher (interestingly named “Jean McBean”) used to call me “Stevie”. She is one of the few people (outside members of my own family) who could do that without raising my hackles. For some reason, “Stevie” is far too familiar a term for most people to use.

As far as family is concerned, I had many other nicknames with my mother (in a private setting though). You may occasionally hear her call me “boykie”. This is result of a delightful fusion between Afrikaans and English. In Afrikaans, the suffix “tjie” is added to the end of a word to make it diminutive. So, “seun” is “son” and “seuntjie” is “little son”. “Bal” is “ball” and “balletjie” is “little ball”. There are similar constructs in other languages. My mother calls me “boytjie”, which literally has the redundant meaning of: “little boy”. Because “tjie” is pronounced “kie” I usually write “boykie”, as it is pronounced.

Another, perhaps more embarrassing maternal nickname is “bum” or “bummel”. My mother has a thing for asses (hey, don’t we all) and apparently I have one that is noteworthy. No it’s nothing weird or kinky. I fondly remember reporting to my mother the relative sexiness of my math’s teacher’s behind. He was not bad really, for an older guy. When my friend Shane found out about this nickname, he couldn’t help but call me this at every opportunity. It tickled his considerable funny bone.

Mom would call Shane “Shanus” and, occasionally, would refer to me as “Stefanus” or the full version: “Stafanus van der Spuy”. “Stefanus” is an Afrikaans version of my name and “van der Spuy” is a common Afrikaans surname, but not quite so popular in joke telling as poor old “van der Merwe”.

On those rare occasions when she was angry with us, Mom would use our full first names “Stephen Stuart, you come right here this instant!” When they go through the hassle of enunciating every syllable, then you know you’re in trouble.

At university, I was occasionally referred to as “foo” a nickname I chose for myself based on my favourite metasyntactic variable. Generally, people called me Steve or Stephen. Isuru (Izzy) often calls me “Mr. Witherden” in much the same way as Agent Smith sayd “Mr. Anderson” in “The Matrix”.

It’s interesting, we don’t tend to identify ourselves by our actual names. I don’t look in the mirror and say “oh, look, there is Stephen Witherden” as I would for other people. When I think of myself I don’t see my name and when I read my name I don’t think of myself. I guess the neural pathways just don’t connect those two concepts quite so strongly. I guess it makes sense since we don’t ever have to call ourselves to come to dinner.