My mother was born with the name Mavis Worthylake. When I tell people this, it never fails to amaze. But then I go for the kicker: her sister is named Juanita. Juanita Worthylake. She married a Wilcox, which was only a small improvement.
Mom used to complain that the only fictional characters named Mavis were truck stop waitresses. It’s not even an especially old-fashioned name like Beulah or Ethel. Mavis is just… rare.
Her mother – my grandmother – was a WWI nurse who came to Canada to marry the injured soldier she had met in hospital, Prescott. Her name was Florence. Everyone called her Flossie. Flossie Worthylake.
Everyone calls my Aunt Juanita “Wheet,” but no one calls Mom anything but “Mavis” – which is fine with her. As much as she’s ambivalent about her name, woe is anyone who calls her “Mav.”
My father’s name is Robert. Everyone calls him Bob, or at least they do now. I remember the great giggly delight I felt as a kid when friends of his parents would call him “Bobby.”
Dad’s full name is Harry Robert Dick Murray. “Harry” was his dad’s name and “Dick” was his mother’s maiden name. He doesn’t use the “Harry” and he’s dropped the “Dick.” There are so many potential jokes here that it’s almost better than the Worthylake sisters.
Considering this history of semi-unfortunate monikers, you have to wonder why my parents would have named me something as odd as “Ross.” They had already produced a Janice, a David and an Andrew, so things were going pretty smoothly. And then they had me. It’s as if they panicked.
Like my mother, I used to lament the lack of Rosses in popular culture. The only people named Ross were… well, no one. Eventually there was Ross Perot.
Then Ross Geller.
In Grade 1, I had to write a composition about my name. I explained that I was named after my great-great-grandfather, which to me was the only thing that could possibly make sense. My parents saw my report and said, “What? No. We just liked the name.” Facts, shmacts, I aced the composition, which may have laid the groundwork for my future career in journalism.
I’ve learned to live with “Ross” (as has my wife – ba-DUM-bum!), and I don’t know that I would now choose an alternative. What I’ve often wished for, though, is a cool nickname, certainly not “Flossie” but something with that kind of oomph.
Nicknames are funny things. Sometimes they come pre-arranged. We knew from the outset, for instance, that we would call Katherine “Kate.” Later, Kate informed us that she preferred “Katie,” so now we call her “Kate” only when she’s done something stupid – usually with an exclamation mark.
Emily is occasionally “Em” but James is always “James,” never “Jim” or “Jimmy,” though sometimes his mother calls him “Magoo,” which is far too embarrassing for everyone involved to discuss here.
The reason for nicknames is to convey a sense of affection and familiarity, but also because speaking is hard work and short words are better. Or at least that’s the only reason I can think of for the fact that some people call Abby “Ab” – like that extra syllable is just so difficult! If you’re going to do that, then the trip from “Ab” to “A” is short and ridiculous.
With “Ross,” there’s really nowhere to go. Consequently, a small handful of people go the other way and lengthen it to “Roscoe,” while others lengthen it still further to “that big jerk Ross.”
My brother Andrew calls me “Rossy the Cow.” He’s the only one who does, and it’s not something I encourage or fully understand. He started doing this in high school, and it was perhaps out of fear that it might actually stick that I attempted to self-lobby my own nickname: Moss. Moss Furry, if push came to shove.
Of course, it didn’t go anywhere because a) it was cringingly stupid and b) true nicknames are organic; you can’t assign them to yourself. Nicknames emerge from characteristics or circumstances and are often beyond your control. There used to be an oldtimer in Stanstead named Poopy, and I doubt very much he picked that himself. After he died, his friends installed a granite bench engraved in his memory, so next time you’re in Stanstead, don’t forget to sit a spell on the Poopy bench.
Now that I’m a card-carrying adult, I’m at peace with knowing I’ll never have a great nickname (and let’s just keep that “cow” business under our hats, shall we?). What I can do is start planning my grandpa name. I’m thinking something hip that combines my unique first name and grandfatherliness. I’m thinking “G-ross.”