Naming rights

There’s nothing like a nickname to date you. Not to the whole world, but in relation to your buddies. What works in high school, may not work in the adult world. Sometimes people outgrow their nicknames. That’s why the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs doesn’t want to be called “Tico”, like when we played minor hockey against each other, but Alexander.


A friend of mine used to be called the equivalent of “Tweety” – as in “Sylvester and Tweety” – when we were in high school. Somewhere along the line, and I was pretty late to catch on to the change, he switched from “Tweety” to another version of his name, a more common one, but also a more adult one.

And yet, just like I had had a hard time switching from English to Swedish as the default language I used with my Swedish friends, I can’t seem to be able to switch to his new nickname – which probably drives his wife nuts. I still call him Tweety. Just like I’m sure Terry – whom I always call Terry but who signs his emails as “Zboy”, or just “Z” – still calls “Sweaty” Sweaty, regardless of his real name or his tendency to perspire these days.

And, in return, “Tweety” still calls me “Rise”, my third nickname. The second one that stuck.

My first one was “Ripe”, a common derivate of Risto in the Helsinki area. My name is not on any top 10 lists in popularity, but I would guess about 65 percent of all Ristos living in Helsinki in the mid-1970s were called “Ripe” so my nickname wasn’t unusual by any means.

At some point, as is often the case in male groups, the last names became the nicknames, especially if the last name was kind of short and snappy. Mine wasn’t and isn’t, so in order to be able use my last name as a nickname, it had to be modified, just like in North American hockey dressing rooms, where Kiprusoff becomes “Kipper”, Alfredsson “Alfie”, Kane “Kaner” and Ruutu “Roots”. Some genius in our class turned it into “Pakru”, pronounced [PUCK-roo].

I didn’t like it, it sounded too hard and harsh, and felt demeaning. Just the way it felt in my mouth was wrong. Fortunately for me, it never stuck.

But Tweety’s “Rise” stuck, because it was what all Ristos were called in the eastern part of Finland. Everybody called me Rise during the five years I lived there.

In fact, you can place people in three categories by time of when they got to know me, just by hearing which nickname they use for me. Up to eighth grade it’s Ripe, through high school it’s Rise, and from college and onward, it’s Ripa, the new generic Helsinki version of Risto.

And then of course, there’s Janne.

The thing about nicknames is that you can’t choose it yourself. You almost can’t even make a conscious decision to call somebody something, nicknames just happen.

On our hockey team’s trip to Sweden in the late 1970s, one of the players fell in love with Hubba Bubba chewing gum, because he could make huge bubbles with it. Of course, one of them exploded in his face, covering it completely, and leaving him picking gum off his face for days.

We, the rest of the team, decided to call him Hubba Bubba.

Ironically, that didn’t stick.

Another one that didn’t stick was the one my former boss called himself, and most likely, wanted us to start using as well. He called himself the Man of Action.

It didn’t stick because he wasn’t one. This was a man who made pignoses while thinking, had the chauffeur take him to the grocery store, and who spent a lot of time securing his next job somewhere warmer than Helsinki. And as far as any other kind of action was concerned, his mass emails with dirty jokes were probably the closest he ever got.

But, in his mind, he was a ferocious man of action. A tiger. No, he thought of himself as a lion.

He even told people he was a triple lion.

“First, I was born under the sign of Leo, my name is Leo, and thirdly, I was born in Lyon,” he said happily.

But, we never called him Lion, either.

There is one nickname that doesn’t have its origin in my name. Janne came up with it. He’s one of those guys who have nicknames for everybody. He’s a warm and caring guy, and he shows his affection by naming people. I had met him playing hockey against him, and then, running around the rink during one tournament, we became friends. He came to our house, I spent summer days at theirs, and when we moved, in the era of letters, we wrote to each other.

Janne called me “Shorty”.

And because he was such a great guy – and because there was nothing I could have done, anyway – I let him. He’d call up and talk about me as “Shorty”, as if everybody called me that. “Hey, is “Shorty” around?”

Somehow, even with Janne being very social, and knowing everybody everywhere, that one didn’t stick, either. None of the other kids picked it up.

But to him, I was – and probably always will be – “Shorty”.

And that’s just fine by me.

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