When it comes to nicknames, Jared Adolf-Bryfogle’s was about as bad as they come.
“People used to call me ‘Hitler’ because my last name was Adolf and I’m very German and have blonde hair and blue eyes,” says the 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate from Philadelphia. “It was not fun.”
From Richard the Lionheart and the Virgin Queen to Snooki and The Situation, nicknames have long been a part of the human experience. But ask anyone who’s suffered through years of Jill Pickle or Smackhead and they’ll tell you that nicknames — particularly the ones doled out in grade school or junior high — can be a huge pain in the appellation.
The cruelty of children
“I moved to a new school in second grade and within a month, the kids started calling me ‘Ch-ch-ch-chia,’” says Layla L’obatti, a 25-year-old fashion designer from Queens, N.Y. “The commercial had come out about the same time that I showed up and I had black frizzy hair down to my butt. The chant would follow me down the hall.”
Patrick Scullin, a 53-year-old advertising creative director from Atlanta, says derisive nicknames were a big part of his small town childhood, too.
“I think it’s like a rite of passage, especially for little boys,” he says “We would literally sit around trying to come up with nicknames for people. And the best nicknames had a cruel edge. They’d start as a form of teasing, and if the nickname really bothered the person, all the better.”
Scullin says some of his childhood friends were known as Roach, Shark, Stinky Pig, Bogus, Trash, Betelgeuse and Gopher. He, himself, was called Skunky in grade school (thanks to a bout of accidental flatulence in church), but later became Guz, a shortened and mispronounced version of Fuzzy Wuzzy (the bear with no hair), a reference to his buzz haircuts.
“Skunky bothered me at first, but then I just embraced it,” he says. “But Guz I liked because it was unique. Many old friends still call me that today.”
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What’s in a nickname?
People come up with nicknames for all sorts of reasons, says Cleveland Evans, associate professor of psychology at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb.
“Most of the time, we give people nicknames out of affection, but occasionally there are pejorative nicknames,” he says. “It’s sort of a natural psychological and linguistics process by which people show a personal connection to somebody — whether it’s positive or negative.”
Research indicates nicknames are more common for men than women, although Evans says that might just be because men tend to come together more in social groups like team sports or the military.
While some individuals toss out nicknames as a means to ingratiate themselves with people, others use them to wield power.
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“Sometimes, it’s a power thing,” he says. “I get to call you by something that’s not really your name and you have to call me by my name. There are also situations where people who have less power come up with a nasty nickname for someone in charge, like a boss they don’t like.”
I told you not to call me that!
While some people love their nicknames (think "Jersey Shore's" The Situation, whose nickname stems from his beloved six-pack abs), others bristle at them, even ones that come from a place of affection.
Alison Koop, a 48-year-old public relations manager from Seattle, says she dated three different men, all of whom began calling her “Big Al.”
“They thought the nickname was original and amusing and would brush aside my pleas to stop using it,” she says. “So I decided to ‘fire’ any date who persisted. It’s about respect — or lack thereof. Your name belongs to you.”
Adolf-Bryfogle, who had to endure “Hitler” all through middle school, says he was able to kick his nickname to the curb a couple of different ways.
“My friends would threaten to beat people up if they called me that,” he says. “But a lot of it was just not reacting to it. They’d make fun of me, but I wouldn’t make fun of them back. I just acted like I didn’t care that much.”
If you’re saddled with an annoying nickname, Evans says simply ask people to cease and desist.
“You can certainly ask people not to use it,” he says. “But if you’re around somebody who insists on using a nickname you don’t like and they won’t stop when you ask, that might be a sign that you should reconsider being friends with them.”
Unfortunately, if the nickname is coming from a boss (or, say, a president) you might just have to suck it up.
“That’s difficult,” he says. “If it’s the only thing going on, most people will be reluctant to make a formal complaint. There are some things you just have to put up with sometimes.”
Positive or negative?
Can a despised nickname have a psychological impact on a person? Evans says it all depends on the individual.
“For somebody who already has a tendency towards depression, it couldn’t help,” he says. “But there are plenty of people who have personalities where that stuff will just run off their back.”
L’obatti, the fashion designer who was known both as Ch-ch-ch-chia and Sasquatch later in high school, says her nicknames were hurtful but they also helped her become a stronger person.
“I think nicknames may be good for you — even cruel ones," she says. "Especially if you can turn it around. I used mine as fuel.”
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