Nickname Dilemma: To Name or Not to Name

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Most of us have birth names and nicknames – with nice meanings or some annoying, endearing and embarrassing. There are stories attached to the names – some historical, some whimsical and some even demeaning.

William Shakespeare once said in his ‘Romeo & Juliet’, What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Chances are when you’ve heard this phrase before, it wasn’t being said by some teenager trying to explain away her secret love for her family’s enemy. These days, we use the phrase “what’s in a name?” to ask all kinds of super intellectual, high-fluting questions about life and language.

Sometimes people ask this to get to the larger ideas we’ve been talking about: that language is really just random at some point. But there are other, more casual times this is used as well. We usually come across this phrase when people are saying that names don’t really matter, that all you need to know is what something is, not what it’s named. This might apply to designer brands or fancy purses. What’s in a name anyway? You can buy the knock off for way cheaper and still have a dress or a purse or whatever. Why should we assign so much meaning to a name (or in this case, a label) in the first place?

From birth, I was named as Hisham Badrul bin Hashim – as testified on my birth certificate. Hisham is Arabic for ‘generous’ and Badrul is ‘full moon’. Wow! Generous Full Moon! The historical side to my name was that I was named after someone who was shot dead while on a date with his girlfriend at the Lake Gardens, Kuala Lumpur. The Straits Times in 1958 reported that a Radio Malaya announcer by the name of Badrul Hisham was shot by the communists during the Insurgency but it was a case of mistaken identity. My father took the name and reversed it to become my birth name.

When I was a toddler, I used to occasionally fall sick. In the old days, the Malay Community has this superstition that I was ‘unable or too heavy’ to carry my birth name. So my grand uncle, Tok Ngah Murad dubbed me ‘Mohamad Azmi’ or Mi for short. After that, I did not have any more sickly bouts and for years, I responded to the name ‘Mi’ from the family.

Then, there are the nickname. It is not necessarily your given name. But it is the one to which you are most eager to respond when called. A nickname is a substitute for the proper name of a familiar person, place, or thing, for affection or ridicule. It is a form of endearment and amusement. As a concept, it is distinct from both pseudonym and stage name, and also from a title, although there may be overlap in these concepts.

A nickname is often considered desirable, symbolising a form of acceptance, but can sometimes be a form of ridicule. Have you ever wondered why we find it so difficult to call people by the regular name their parents chose for them? Why do we twist and turn and squeeze the name till we come up with our own version of a carefully thought about form of address? And this is a universal phenomenon, more in some countries than others. Nicknames stick to people, and the most ridiculous are the most adhesive.

My nickname was derived from a hair cream with the brand name of ‘Old Spice’. Old Spice is an American brand of male grooming products. It is manufactured by Procter & Gamble. Nowadays, Old Spice products are not to found in Malaysia but you can still find them overseas. Recently, a friend ‘Shown’ – Mohammad Faisal Rahman (C’84), who works in Qatar presented me with a Old Spice Fiji Shampoo (which he bought in Doha) at the recent MCKK’s Old Boys Weekend in Kuala Kangsar. How ironic to be given an Old Spice at the very place I was nicknamed ‘Old Spice’ some 44 years ago!

I was nicknamed by my seniors when I started studying in Form one at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar in 1972. It was at the orientation meeting of the Northern Area Students Association (NASA), when the ‘Abang-abang senior’ asked the fresh faced first formers on the brand of hair cream that they wore. Many settled for the brand ‘Brylcream’, a few settled for ‘Tancho’ but only one answered as ‘Old Spice’. That bemused the seniors since they, the Upper Sixers don’t even use that brand. From that day onwards, I was nicknamed as ‘Old Spice’ and it stuck with me through my college life, though the ‘Old’ disappeared later on. So, it was just Spice.

I used to resent that name until the emergence of the glamorous Spice Girls which brought a bit of glamour and panache to the name. When I did my Lower Six at the Sultan Abdul Hamid College (Alor Star), some of the guys tried to substitute Old Spice to Brut, another brand of toiletries. However it did not stick on.

So, Spice it had remained till today and it may be implying of various pungent, aromatic plant substances used to flavour foods or beverages. Or it could also be something that adds zest or interest. Whatever it means, I do intend to ‘spice’ up life. My Name is OLD SPICE – but just call me SPICE, please. I like!

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