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What’s in a (nick)name?


I’ve gone by a nickname my whole life, far before I could make the decision for myself — in fact, before I could talk. My parents never planned for me to go by my given name at all — I thought my name was “Gus” long before I ever knew it was really John Augustus.

Sometimes when I tell people this, they cock an eyebrow and ask if I’m okay with that, that my parents took away a sort of agency in assigning me a nickname. It’s never seemed any more arbitrary than what we all go through. To be named and known as anything is an interaction with others, and a place where we lose a little agency – even when we name ourselves, we cannot control what associations other people make with the name we ask to be called, or how they receive its connection to us.

Despite all of this, lately I’ve been going by John. In my off-campus employment I am known only as John. Making peace with the reality of my legal first name has, for me, been a way of realizing adulthood. My name is not just what I’m called by friends and family but also what identifies me as a legal entity, an entity named John Augustus Emmons who pays taxes, takes out student loans, and registers for the draft.

On that journey, I’ve been glad to have a nickname to fall back on. It’s nice to be known as something different by those I love and like, to know from the first sentence of a phone call, email, or text the level of familiarity I’m on with the speaker. To be John to the world and Gus to myself — and to hold the power to choose who knows me as the world does and who knows me as I know myself — is a welcome refuge, and a reminder that none of us are only one kind of person or defined by one kind of view of us. When I have kids of my own, I think I’ll take my parents’ wisdom — which they bestowed on my sister, too — into account.

John Emmons is from Seattle, Wash.

His majors are Chinese and political science.