I turn toward the person saying those words.
My given first name is "Dennis," not "Denny."
"Denny" is a nickname.
In America, nicknames abound. I am not familiar enough with the customs of other countries to know whether people in North Korea are known as "Kimmie" or "Jongy-ungy," or even "Stinky," "Spanky" or "Chinky."
That last nickname, nowadays politically incorrect, was the lifelong appellation of one of my second cousins. His given name, Charles, was known only to close family members. He got "Chinky" in grade school because his face reflected Oriental stereotypes.
An uncle was known as "Flat." Another uncle, Albert by birth, was "Rico," after he became enamored of a movie character of that name. In Spanish, "Rico" means "strong ruler;" in Italian, it is a diminutive of "Enrico." Google tells me these things. My uncle chose "Rico" before World War II because, before "cool" became synonymous with "admirable," that movie character was cool.
One of the more colorful aspects of obituaries published in this region is the willingness of obituary-dictating people to include nicknames.
Sometimes, including nicknames is a necessity. The aforementioned Uncle Flat was christened Frank J. His cousin, of about the same age, was christened Frank C. They grew up in the same neighborhood, a long city block apart. They worked at the same steel fabricating plant before, during and after World War II.
The workers and managers of that day had no time to holler "Hey, Frank J!" or "Where is Frank C?" Even if they had the time, they would not have had the inclination, because there were probably 20 other men named Frank at that plant.
So Uncle Flat became known, even in his childhood, as "Flat." I asked him why. He grinned widely, put his work-gnarled paw of a hand atop what hair was left on his scalp, and said, "Flat head. I have a flat head. Get it?"
Since I grew up knowing him only as Uncle Flat, it never struck me as odd when his wife, Aunt Jean, gave him a hug in appreciation of a birthday or Mother's Day gift and sweetly said, "Aww, Flat, I love you!"
We even use nicknames generically — or we used to.
Nowadays, people from Poland are known as "Poles," not the "Polacks" or "Pollacks" of our grandfathers' generation. "Dago" and "Wop" for Italians were offensive to me even in childhood, but I swallowed the resentment because, naturally enough in the 1940s, I had just called a childhood friend of German ancestry "Kraut."
And the once-common epithet for people of African origin and possessed of brown or black skin is not even nowadays used in newspapers. "The N-word" is considered to be even more crass, crude and obscene these days than "The F-word" was in my younger years.
Happily, Chinkie passed to his eternal reward long before the derogatory and despicable nature of "The N-word" became extended to disapprove of the use of many pseudonyms, and not just for ethnic reasons.
One of my sons, Greg, now 40, grew up being known as "retarded" or, in cruder language, "a retard." That is now perceived as demeaning. I remember as a child, before Greg was born, hearing those same people with the genetic abnormality now known as Down syndrome being called "Mongoloids" in reference to the characteristic slanted eyelids or, worse, "Mongolian idiots."
Sadly, I probably used that term thoughtlessly to describe a distant cousin who was perhaps five years older than I was. Richard's speech was garbled and his gait was hobbled, just as my son Greg's speech and gait are to this day. But few people call Greg a "retard" or "Mongolian idiot," which is just as well. His brothers and sisters could get fist-swinging angry at that usage.
Many nicknames actually begin as endearments.
"Chi-baba" or "Chi-babba" is an Italian endearment roughly translated as "my bambino" and "bambino" in its turn is translated as "little baby."
That sounds sweet.
But in the chest-bumping, finger-sticking rituals of testosterone-overloaded teenage boys acting as though we wanted to get into fistfights (while mostly dreading the actuality), "You little Chi-baba!" was an insult, "You cry-baby!"
We also have nicknames for dogs, cats and horses, although I have yet to hear nicknames for individual members of our flock of chickens.
We even use nicknames for towns, e.g., "Philly" for Philadelphia or "Da Burgh" for Pittsburgh. More than a few motor vehicles are "Betsey" or "Clifford," as in "Clifford, the Big Red Dog."
What is the point of all this nicknaming?
I think it reflects a deep-seated tendency to accept someone or something as "one of us," or to reject something as subhuman or disgusting, one of "them."
And the sweetness, the casual chumminess or the vicious disparagement are conveyed as much by tone and context as by the actual word or words.
So when someone sweet says, in dulcet tones, "Heey, Den-neee," I immediately react... with "Whaddaya want now?"
Denny Bonavita, a former editor and publisher at daily and weekly newspapers in western Pennsylvania, winters in Apalachicola. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org