Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Bunky-Doodle (that's her in the picture) and Gurgle were my mother and her sister. They were also variously known as Binny, Gunny, Gertrude, Trudy, Harry or Adelaide. They each had a second official name which no one ever used.

They would have been astonished if someone they didn’t know had addressed them by any of those names, even the “real” ones, in person, by mail or on the phone. Were they alive today, the steely, quiet one would have pursed her lips and blanked her face. The stroppy one would have glared sparks and said “how rude”.

Some of those were pet names, childhood names, names that evolved out of long-forgotten incidents or family fights. Little Adelaide once yelled that her sister looked like a gunny-sack. Little Gertrude screamed that Adelaide looked like a binny-bottle. Gunny and Binny emerged from the debris, leaving Gertrude and Adelaide way, way behind, only to surface again seven decades later.

Binny soon became Harry, because her second name was Henrietta. Everyone knew her as Harry for most of her life, but she ended up choosing not to be called that because there was hardly anyone left alive to be privileged to do so. That’s how she thought of it, it was the way things were in their day. First names, and especially nicknames, were for special people.

Gunny remained Gunny for most of her life too, but in her eighties she tried to discourage it, except for her own special people. Gertrude she insisted, or Trudy. Both women would have considered the modern practice of everyone calling everyone else by their first names on casual acquaintance to be impertinent.

I now understand how they felt. Perhaps, as we grow older, we become tetchy about this, even if we weren’t before. Those who have been known by diminutives of their real names, the Elizabeths who have always been Lizzie, Beth or Betty, cringe. Those addressed by names they don’t use feel like spitting their dummies. They must a) choose to correct the error and appear to condone the policy, or b) protest at the policy and demand the more formal Mrs Smith. Either way they feel aggrieved and appear churlish.

As for those nicknames, they are waiting to trip us up as more of our secrets are stored in the clouds. Think of all the crotchety octogenarians out there who are getting ready to be outraged that someone could turn up one day and address them as Popsy, Topsy, Dotty or Bubbles.

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