Let’s play a little self-revelation and English conversation game I call FFP—First Five Primes. To play, take the first five prime numbers and attach to each one a fact, concept, or memory that is relevant to you, like this:
2 = ice trays in my office fridge (but no wet bar)
3 = times I threw up in class in elementary school
5 = t-shirts I own that my mother would probably disapprove of
7 = kilometers from my house to school
11 = volumes in the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series on my bookshelf (don’t ask if I’ve read or even opened them yet)
Wasn’t that fun? This game evolved from another game I made up for English classes called Who Am I with Pi, using the first five numbers of π (3.1415...), but that game had problems. The numbers involved were really close together, and “1” showed up twice. I finally gave up on it one day when a student looked at me earnestly before we started playing and asked, “Why pi?” Suddenly the whole thing seemed silly. Doing it with prime numbers allows me to spin a plausible analogy about numerical and personal “uniqueness” that makes the students feel like they’re exploring something meaningful about themselves. I also prefer this new game because it “goes to 11” (if this column had clickbait capability, I’d link here to the film This is Spinal Tap).
Speaking of uniqueness, in the FFP list above, under “3” I could have said “nicknames I acquired before graduating high school”: Scrub, Ganglia, and Grendel. My father gave me the first one, but he never told me why. For all I know it could have been because my parents used to bathe me in a mop bucket. The other two nicknames were given by classmates. “Ganglia” (literally, a group of neurons in the body) arose from a traumatic frog-dissecting experience we all shared in science class. As a nickname the correct form probably should have been the singular ganglion, but who knows, maybe my friends thought of me as a grotesque, pulsing mass of nerves. To me “Grendel” was the most benign of the three. It had a nice Grimms’ Fairy Tales feel to it, even though Grendel was actually a savage, rampaging monster in the ancient poem Beowulf, which we read in English class.
I think it’s OK to try out nicknames with my students if I get to know them well enough. Sometimes the names stick—like with my seminar student Reo, who I call “DiCaprio”, much to his liking. And sometimes they don’t—like with Takayuki, who I tried to call “Takoyaki” (octopus fritter) until he said he’d been trying to escape that nickname his whole life; when I tried the more exotic sounding “Calamari”, he silently turned and walked away.
One of the more pointless things you can do is try to give yourself a nickname. I tried this in elementary school. On the first day of sixth grade our teacher passed around self-information sheets, and one of the questions, right after “first name” and “last name”, was “name you prefer to be called”. On a whim, I wrote “Melvin”. For the whole year, Teacher called me out with a sarcastic, drawn-out “Mel-vin!”
Nicknames don’t really work when self-ascribed because they are supposed to be given to you by others to signify unique relationships, to express private knowledge of you that strangers don’t have. Either that, or they emerge as the first word that comes to the mind of people who couldn’t care less, like my high school art teacher who started calling me “Thumbs” after an incident on the pottery wheel. “Sukotto-chan” is a name I sometimes hear these days, one that suggests a close relationship between the speaker and me. On the other hand, “Gard-nerd”—another short-lived nickname from high school—seems to show playful teasing at best, and loathsome disdain at worst. It shouldn’t surprise you that I don’t like any of those names.
The more intimate the relationship, the more intimate the nickname, right? I’ve tried out several different pet names for my wife, but she never seems to like any of them. My personal favorite was “Sweet Potato Pie”, but she just looked at me and asked, “Why pie?”