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When Tommy Becomes Tom: The Art of Ditching the Childhood Nickname

There comes a time in the life of every Timmy, Jimmy, Tommy, Mikey and Billy when they must decide whether to become a Timothy, James, Thomas, Michael and William — or at the very least, a Tim, Jim, Tom, Mike and Bill.

The natural moment for this transition would seem to be immediately after college (circa age 22), when a young man’s prolonged adolescence comes to an abrupt end, and he’s thrust into the realm of serious adulthood. Shaking hands with a colleague and introducing yourself as Jimmy doesn’t engender the same kind of gravitas and respect as saying, “Pleasure to meet you. I’m James.”

Jimmy is the guy who tries to swindle you at the used car lot; James gets the corner office.

But transitioning to one’s proper name can be awkward at times, especially when all anyone has ever known you as is Tommy.

I called my friend Scottie McAdams, 28, to discuss this phenomenon, and when I got his voicemail, I noticed he identified himself as “Scott” McAdams. Technically, this is accurate. Scott is, in a legal sense, Scottie’s real name. But it was jarring, because as far as I’m concerned, he is, and forever will be, Scottie.

“I get that a lot when I’m introducing myself to someone and there’s a third party present who’s known me since childhood as Scottie,” McAdams explains. “They’ll go, ‘Wow, that’s weird. I’ve never heard you say ‘Scott’ before.’”

Per my hunch, Scottie first began introducing himself as Scott after he graduated from college. “It was a maturity play,” he says. He took a sales job at Intersport, a sports and entertainment marketing company, and wanted to present himself as a professional. “The majority of people I’m doing business with are senior level folks who have been doing business for 20-plus years and have a certain level of respect and maturity. I have to make myself seem similarly tenured and experienced, and dropping the -ie definitely helps,” he says. “Scottie feels childish.”

Indeed, Scottie was, at least initially, a way for McAdams’ family to differentiate between him and his father, who was unequivocally Scott. Like many father-son pairs who share the same name, the younger one got an “e” sound appended to his to signify he was the younger one.

Same thing for my 29-year-old friend Kenneth Javor, a name that sounds hilariously formal to me considering I’ve only known him as Kenny. Javor’s father and grandfather are Kenneth as well. The oldest went by Dr. Javor. His son, Kenneth, went by Kenny until he had a Kenneth of his own, at which point the second Kenneth turned from Kenny to Ken, and the youngest Kenneth became Kenny — although Ken’s sisters continued to call him Kenny out of habit.

Although Javor never minded other people calling him Kenny, he was always sure to present himself as Ken. “I’ve never introduced myself as Kenny,” he tells me. “Even when we were in high school, I always introduced myself as Ken.” Kenny carries a connotation as the goofball of the group, like Kenny Powers in Eastbound and Down and Kenny in South Park. Ken was marginally more serious (although it never really stuck).

“An ‘e’ sound at the end of a name is something reserved for a younger boy, like the suffix -ito for Spanish boys’ names,” Javor tells me. “Ken is a strong, one-syllable name. I just like the way it sounds. It sounds more serious.”

Now Javor has three distinct first names: Kenneth (for business cards), Ken (for colleagues) and Kenny (for close friends and family).

That last group— all those family and friends — makes the -ie/-y appendages hard to shake completely. In fact, it’s almost impossible for Javor and McAdams to have their childhood friends suddenly change course and start calling them a new name. (By the same token, they both still call me “Johnny.”) But it’s deeper than that, too. For McAdams and Javor, the names Scottie and Kenny are sacred. They signify a level of closeness their more formal names don’t. When a person attaches the “e” sound to the end of their name, it means they’ve reached a notable level of friendship — one that can’t go by any other name.

“[Kenny] doesn’t bother me at all,” Javor says. “I think it’s endearing. People use it as a sign of affection. It denotes that someone is a friend. They’ve got the in — they can call me Kenny.”