The Psychology of Nicknames in the Workplace: The Power of Pootie Poot and Houdini

Do you ever get tired of calling people by their proper names? Have you worked with someone for over 5 years and you barely remember what their real, passport name is?   Maybe you have never known it. Nicknames in the workplace are all the rage these days. Former President George W. Bush was extremely fond of nicknames, perhaps because he himself had to find a way to differentiate himself from all the other George Bush’s in his family.  If you ever watched him give a press conference, you would have noticed that every time he called on a journalist, he would refer to them by some odd, and at times extremely kooky name.   The rumor is that he got his nickname-calling habit at Yale University when he was part of the Skull and Bones society. While in Skull and Bones he was supposedly given the nickname “Temporary”. Makes you wonder how his political opponents never used that nickname to their advantage.  It’s like really, you want the leader of the free world to be someone that is called “Temporary” that doesn’t invite much confidence in long-term policy planning.


George W. Bush also had a penchant for Hispanicizing people’s names. Paul Wellstone became Pablo.  Peter King, from New York, became Pedro. Margaret Spelling became La Margarita–note that she was the Secretary of Education. Do you actually want to call the head educator of the country, La Margarita–isn’t that a cocktail?  I do wonder about the signal Bush was sending when he gave then Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez the nickname of Fredo. Isn’t that a name from the Godfather movies?  What was Bush trying to tell us with that nickname?  I have to admit, I value Bush’s nickname for Silvio Berlusconi, former Prime Minister of Italy.  His nickname was “Shoes”. Seems to fit (haha).   Who can forget Bush’s nickname for Michael Brown, the former head of FEMA?  He called him “Brownie” in the middle of the Katrina fiasco in New Orleans. Somehow, the use of that nickname seemed to minimize the devastation felt by the people.


Now, let me get one thing out of the way. I am not talking about “code” names or names that we use to refer to someone behind their back. That’s a whole other blog. I do admit I have a whole universe of code names; everything from Voldemort to Adam Sandler to Cousin It.  No, I am not here to talk about those types of names; although they are often fun to designate and at other times they come about in the heat of the infuriated moment. No, I am talking about the out-in-the-open nickname; the one that the group or perhaps a boss has openly designated. Nicknames can be a bonding phenomenon as they illustrate a creative moment of inter-personal communications.  But do you really want to be referred to by your nationality, your hair color, your body type, your demeanor, or your favorite food?


What about the recent phenomenon in which people refer to each other as “boss.”  You pass by two people who are talking and one might turn and say “hey boss”.  It reminds me of Joey’s catchphrase on Friends “how you doin’?”  By referring to everyone as “boss” does it not undermine the weight of that title? Why has everyone taken to throwing that name about?  What if you are the boss and everyone refers to you that way? Is it not a constant reminder of how you are different from the rest and that you carry the financial weight of the workplace universe? When people who are actually in a higher position of authority call others “boss”, it is like they are calling attention to the fact that they are in fact the “boss” and not you. When someone in a lower position of authority uses that phrase, it is as if he or she is also trying to make fun of you.


Nicknaming usually occurs where people work in close quarters and spend lots of time together.  Nicknaming can build cohesion among employees and can be a source of some good laughs during these tough economic times. It can also help workers deal with co-workers or supervisors who are hard to get along with.  Look at George Bush’s nickname for Putin (note, the guy had nuclear missiles): “Pootie Poot.”  What better way to disarm and work with a frenemy? So, you have a difficult work colleague you need a nickname for?  I hear Pootie Poot goes over well.


If you do not have a workplace nickname and you feel left out, you could go to a website that will generate a nickname for you based on several of your likes including liquor preference:  see  The website didn’t include rum as my drink of choice, consequently the name it generated for me is highly suspect–but it mulled over my answers and my generated nickname is Houdini. Hmm? Apparently, I am full of surprises (either that or I will meet a really twisted fate involving chains, abdominal problems, and a water tank). Am I allowed to give myself a workplace nickname? Houdini is just as good as, or better than, “Boss Woman.”  Let’s split the difference.  I’ll settle for “Goddess”.

67 replies »

  1. I had a few nicknames growing up and at work – nothing too good, bad, or memorable. What really jumps to mind though, is the story of Pi’s nickname in “Life of Pi.” Now there was a kid who really earned it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if nicknames can lead to other issues. I know a boss who issues cutsie names for female staff and in some cases this has developed – it seems- inappropriate feelings as the cute name encourages thoughts that the boss is keen on them or thinks that person is special tothem


  3. George Bush cements his reputation for being a little infantile – that said, I don’t mind nicknames if they aren’t mean. ‘Vinegar tits’ for someone in my workplace is probably not the nicest..


  4. Interesting article! I knew President Bush liked calling people weird nicknames, but never knew he took it that far. It’s suits his character. I think nicknames are great ideas for coworkers that you’re more familiar with than most. Some people don’t like being called nicknames by others whom they hardly know. Me, for instance, I don’t mind the nicknames. I’ve had so many because of my name. I personally like JohnJohn or Johnny boy. For you, Houdini sounds fitting.


  5. Reblogged this on SparkRIDE Nation and commented:
    A great article read on nicknames. Well written and well covered topics. It goes over how nicknames go around the workplace. Do you think people should have nicknames with their employee/management relationship? I for one don’t mind, but I can understand if employees don’t like their boss giving them nicknames (vice versa) if their relationship isn’t a close one.


  6. Hilarious. I actually can’t remember any “out-in-the-open” nicknames given to people where I worked. We usually just stuck to their NAME or the “given” nickname. I have heard the nickname “boss” you mentioned. One I really don’t care for that was popular (still might be, I am not sure) a bit ago was “mama”. Ugh. I don’t understand that, especially when adults call the babies “mama”.


  7. Sometime nicknames can be annoying as well. But it’s fun to be called not by your first name. Great post though. 🙂


  8. A great read!
    -from someone who’s gone from tolerating being nicknamed “munchkin” due to being slightly height-challenged to embracing it as an alter-ego “MunchKin” an author for my sister’s food (albeit eclectic) blog.


  9. My favorite work nicknames include “Basil” (as in Basil Fawlty courtesy of PG Gustafsson and Jan Sendel), “Sparkle” (something to do with my eyes “sparkling” but only the women called me that, the men opted for Sparky), and then there was “Samuel L Jackson” and who knows what behind my back. Some of my friends call me “Chef.” I have a checkered past :::snork:::


  10. From my early schooldays, so for the last 55 years, I have always given people nicknames, and also been known by many different ones too. In London, shortening of names was popular, so Terence would become ‘Tel’, and Anthony was always ‘Tone’, for example. But they are not true nicknames, just abbreviations. As a union organiser (and a Communist) for many years, I was often called (derisively) ‘Stalin’, but the nickname that stuck longest was ‘Yoda’. I do have a resemblance to that character, I must confess.
    Best wishes, Pete.


  11. I have had long time friends who have died and I didn’t know their birth names until the funeral! Some people just hate their names and some nicknames just fit better than the names people were given at birth. 😎👍


  12. There is an expression: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But actually it doesn’t. If someone is deathly allergic to bee stings, a name for a rose that meant, “Attractor of Bees,” would make it smell like death, swelling, and suffocation. Triggering and passing on subconscious messages is a form of obfuscation and can be an insidious form of passive aggression. Naming things without explicit definitions can be stereotyping. It is very imprecise, and as for Houdini, one might be tempted to ask you what psychological issues are you “escaping” from.


  13. My name is Susannah, but I offer my workmates the nickname Sunny. It’s less formal and somewhat endearing; most people smile when they say it.
    There is another post about the benefits of offering people you want to influence the option to use a nickname, especially if your name is long or especially if it’s unusual or difficult to pronounce.


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