A number of years ago I watched a French film—I think it was by a New Wave director, and I think it was Jules et Jim—in which one character suggests to another that they start using the familiar you, “tu” instead of “vous.” (In French this wonderful phrase is “On peut se tutoyer?” which literally means “One could refer to one another with the familiar you?”—except not really literally, since there is no literal English translation for the verb “tutoyer.”) I am very frustrated that I cannot, after minutes of internet research, figure out which film it was or what the intradiegetic circumstances were. My memory is that a pair of new lovers are lounging around post-coitally in an artfully rumpled bed, and are suddenly confronted by the fact that there are no more mysteries between them, no more intimacy hurdles to overleap, now that they’ve had sex. One says something like “What now?” and the other replies, languidly, Frenchly, “On peut se tutoyer?”
I was fascinated by this scene, which I saw in my early 20s, for a number of reasons. First of all, as someone whose French has wobbled on the knife-edge of fluency for much of her life, I have long been obsessed by niceties of native usage like slang, idiomatic expressions, and grammatical conundra. Here was a little window into one of the great mysteries of Frenchhood: How and when and why does one switch from formal/polite “vous” to familiar “tu”? I was stunned to learn that one could simply, you know, ask.1 It seemed to contravene the whole spirit of vouvoiement, in which relative strangers treat one another with cool politeness, respectful distance, a certain old-fashioned formality. If you’re still calling one another “vous,” how do you make the leap in intimacy required to even ask to start using “tu”? What if the other person doesn’t want to, or feels pressured, or thinks it’s too soon? Ick. But even more fascinating was the knowledge that apparently two people could meet, express their mutual attraction, maybe even fall in love and into bed (not necessarily in that order), all while still calling each other “vous.” Everything I thought I knew about polite vs. informal address was blown apart by this cinematic moment. I would never be French.
But it occurred to me recently that I do understand the complex and subtle negotiations involved in tutoiement: for I have a nickname. Not only do I have a nickname—I have a nickname that I like to reserve for friends and intimates, that I don’t even reveal until a certain point in a new relationship. I use the name on my birth certificate, Deanna, for all professional and official purposes; it’s the version of my name on documents and publications and websites and bureaucratic administrivia. It’s also the name I use when introducing myself to anyone other than a friend of a friend. It is basically my “vous.” My nickname, Dee, was also assigned to me more or less at birth by my parents—there was never a time when I wasn’t called “Dee” by my family. The earliest recorded instance I can find of my nickname is in a series of photos my father took to send to my mom when she was in the hospital giving birth to my sister, which would make me just over a year old.
(These photos, which my father inserted into stiff cardboard folders, decorated with jokey captions, and imprinted with the logo “Halmark”—he was either “Harold” or “Hal” depending on his own tutoiement circumstances—used to deeply embarrass me as a teenager and young adult. One features a snap of me completely nude and sitting on the floor next to a dresser drawer that I had just peed in, thinking it was my potty. I believe the caption included the phrase “Splish! Splash!” Thanks, Dad, for showing that picture to every one of my friends and significant others who ever visited our house.)
Thus I never had any choice in my own nickname, which was handed over to me along with my full name in a kind of two-for-one prepackaged bundle. Some people are automatically in this position just by virtue of their names: if you are Stanley, you are probably going to be called “Stan,” and Amandas pretty much have only the option of “Mandy.” But other names come along with a whole suite of nickname options: a Robert can become Rob, Robbie, Bob, or Bobby, while Patricia has the option of Pat, Patsy, Patty, Trish, or Tricia. Elizabeths, of course, have the most resplendent smorgasbord of potential nicknames imaginable: Liz, Lizzie, Liza, Eliza, Beth, Betsy, Betty, Bitsy, and probably a bunch I’m forgetting. (Honestly, I don’t know how you decide, Elizabeths!) “Deanna,” being a weird-ass name that my parents thought they were making up (it’s a combination of my father’s middle name, Dean, and my mother’s middle name, Anna2) but is actually a pre-existing (albeit rare3) name, has no clear nickname. “Dee” is a solid choice, but how to spell it? My parents did not seem to dither at all between “Dea” or “De,” both of which would have been logical, if horrifying. But in theory I also could have been “Anna” or even “Ann” or “Annie,” according to the insane monikerization rules governing the Elizabeths of the world.
Generally speaking, nickname selection should take into consideration the matter of “tone.” If you’re given a cute, child-like version of your name as a youngster—Bobby or Davey or Jimmy or Jenny or Debbie or Susie—what do you do when you get older? Keep it, or trade it in for a more “adult” version—Bob, Dave, Jim, Jen, Deb, Sue? (Or do you use both, and thus develop a tripartite hierarchy of name intimacies? Gobsmacking.) I have to confess that I kind of love it when I meet an adult Kenny or Kimmy; it bespeaks a certain confidence and tranquil self-possession, in my mind, to introduce oneself at a board meeting by a name usually heard in a sandbox. (I am not being facetious.) It is also a practice more commonly found in the South, which is bristling with middle-aged Rickys and Johnnys; those of a certain age will remember the kerfuffle inaugurated by the idea of the President of the United States being addressed as “Jimmy.” I have a friend from Tennessee who once worked for a telecommunications company in Chicago; at the end of his initial job interview his boss informed him he was hired, and asked if he had any questions. “Not that I can think of. But I did want to let you know that I go by ‘Bobby,’ not ‘Robert.’” There was a pause while his new boss looked him up and down. “Nope. Sorry. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
I like the fact that my own nickname is, in my opinion, perfectly balanced in tone: not too obviously cutesy-young, but just cutesy-young enough to feel personal and friendly. (Only two people on Planet Earth have ever been allowed to call me “DeeDee”: one is my college friend Steve Tey and the other is my brother-in-law Hamish. I’m not sure how either of them gets away with it—they both just kind of seized on it and made it their own.) I am also fine with the fact that all of these decisions were made for me before I could even talk. I’m not sure how those who have chosen—or changed—their own nicknames go about the process: what brings about the initial prompting, and how do you choose which foreshortened version of your name will become the label for the most private version of your self? (Don’t even get me started on those austere, resplendent personages who choose not to have a nickname at all, you “It’s Actually Daniel”s and “I Go By Angela”s of the world. I regard you with the same admiring awe I reserve for half-marathon runners and people who can do an arm balance in yoga.) The fact that my nickname came from my parents, that I didn’t get to/have to choose it, makes it feel deeply familiar and intimate to me. It’s who I was for years before venturing out into the world, where people started reading my other name to me off of class rolls, interpellating me for the first time into the formal, official, state-sponsored version of myself.
Thus, when I ask someone to call me “Dee,” it’s a signal that I am prepared to admit them at least partway into the sanctum sanctorum of friendship. The fact that my nickname is not part of a prepackaged bundle, like Matthew -> Matt, makes its revelation particularly rich in significance: I am letting you in on a secret, and now we will be friends. So when someone calls me by my nickname without having been invited to do so, it’s a little shocking. It feels presumptuous, blundering, almost like a violation. Alternatively, when someone calls me “Deanna” who I think should really be calling me “Dee,” especially if it’s someone I’ve explicitly invited to do so, I feel a wee cold chill, a frisson of rejection. Furthermore, it is perfectly and totally clear to me exactly who should use each version of my name. But here is the rub: these rules are private and idiosyncratic. Unlike culturally accepted rules for polite and familiar address in languages that make this distinction, my “rules” for Deanna-vs.-Dee are known only to me. I feel the difference viscerally, but how could I communicate it to anyone else? I’m afraid that the whole situation invites inadvertent mistakes and stupidly hurt feelings. But what can one do about it? It’s a trap.
To confuse matters even further, I cannot rule out the possibility that potential friends might have their own nicknames, and thus their own private rules that conflict with mine. Perhaps my new buddy Stephanie feels deeply that no one should be calling her “Stef” unless that person is throwing themselves, weeping, across her coffin. Or even more confusingly, there might be (quite mad) people out there who feel that using formal names is more intimate than profligate nicknamage.4 A number of years ago, during one of my occasional stabs at fluency, I read an essay in French about vouvoiement. It elegantly argued that there’s something incontrovertibly sexy about continuing to use “vous” with a lover. As if I wasn’t already confused enough—and yet, I could kind of see what the writer meant, even as a non-native speaker. That little bit of distance and formality can seem, paradoxically, more intimate than using the same pronoun you use with children or pets.5 You are in a separate category, worthy of my deep respect, and I know that this little bit of distance will keep things interesting between us. No wonder Jules (or Jim?) seemed filled with ennui when uttering “On peut se tutoyer?”
So the whole nickname thing is a bundle of potential contradictions. But all hope is not lost. While it’s true that my personal Deedoiement rules are both deeply felt and private, there is obviously some unconscious signaling going on with a new acquaintance, some subtle negotiations occurring beneath the level of awareness, to bring us to an understanding of how to address each other. Any new friendship is a tango of increasing intimacies—like a shark, it either moves forward or it dies. (My friend Trish’s theory is that you have to reach the stage where you can thematize the friendship—tell the other person that you’re happy you’re friends—or the whole thing is toast. That seems like a good yardstick to me, but of course it’s a bit scary, a bit of a risk.) By this logic, the question of nicknames is just part of the friendship dance. Like everything worth doing with another human being, the most important rules are those you create together.
And no, I have no idea when you’re allowed to ask someone to help you move.
Don’t even get me started on “On se fait la bise?”
Actually, my mother’s first name was meant to be “Carol” and her middle name “Anna,” but the person registering her birth certificate ran it all into one name, “Carolanna.” I’ve never heard of another person with this name, which I think is lovely. She did usually go by “Carol,” although my father always called her “Carolanna,” or sometimes “Carolina” as a joke.
The popularity ranking of my name hovered around 100 or so in the decade surrounding my birth, and then started steadily declining to where it is today, roughly around 1000th. It’s rare that I come across another Deanna, and we’re always kind of tickled to meet each other. (It’s even more rare to find another Deanna who goes by “Dee.”) I’ve never understood the lack of popularity of my name, which I think is a pretty excellent one: three syllables, good scansion, mellifluous feminine-rhyme ending but not too girly frou-frou. You can totally picture a Deanna on the Supreme Court, along with her fellow justices Sandra, Elena, and Sonia. It is harder—for a Gen Xer anyway—to imagine a SCOTUS justice named Kaitlyn or Tiffany. (Don’t @ me; I’m sure it will happen eventually.)
This is where I report the staggering fact that my own spouse insists on calling me “Deanna.” When we first met I practically begged him to call me “Dee,” and he just ... refused. So now my name has come full circle, and “Deanna” has become his (sort of) private name for me. (He does refer to me as “Dee” in front of friends.) Somewhere along the way I started calling him “Scottie,” a nickname that he has told me no one uses. But you know—I just refused to listen.
Obviously one uses “vous” with cats.