I’m not quite 30 yet, so I am, without a doubt, not old enough to be forgetting things. I’ve never lost my phone while drunk, the last time I misplaced my keys was in middle school, and I have an uncommonly encyclopedic knowledge of my own wardrobe — even the stuff at the very back of my closet. I may not have a tight grip on everything in my life, but if there’s something going wrong, I know exactly what it is. Except, unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the guy I dated for four months last winter.
That’s not totally accurate: I can remember the name I called him, but I can’t remember the name he called himself. In basically every conversation I ever had about the man, he was Morning Soccer Guy. I dated him during the English Premier League season, so I’d go over to his place on Friday nights, and on Saturday mornings, he’d cook breakfast and we’d watch Tottenham play. It was a totally pleasant situation that neither of us expected to last very far into spring, and although I certainly knew his real name while we were seeing each other, it apparently vanished from my consciousness as soon as he vanished from my social life. I only even realized I couldn’t remember it (James? John? Jon with no h, maybe?) while trying to explain my ex’s Saturday schedule to a friend who recently started dating a soccer fan.
Her soccer fan is known in our social circle as BBC Guy. Another good friend of ours is dating a guy named Mike, but I only know that because she calls him Motorcycle Mike. (I bet you can figure out why.) Everyone I know referred to the guy I hooked up with for six weeks this spring as the Captain, and, had they eventually spent time with him, I’m not sure they would have been able to stop themselves from saying it to his face. My friend Lauren, 32, once met a guy at an expat bar abroad and entered his name into her phone as his nationality; she only found out his real name weeks later when she finally had a chance to ask his doorman. Until then, she and all her friends had simply referred to him as the Nigerian.
The more I thought about my own inability to recall Morning Soccer Guy’s given name, the more I realized I had the same difficulty naming the people my friends were dating, and not just because I’m a raging narcissist who doesn’t pay attention when other people talk. Instead, my friends who date men had rarely even bothered to mention new guys’ names, opting instead for an impersonal nickname shorthand that refocused attention on some detail of their professions or personal interests. Which raises the question: Why are we all telling each other about going to a cocktail bar with Floppy-Hair Dude instead of saying we’ve been on three dates with a guy named Adam who seems cool?
There’s rarely a single, straightforward reason why large swathes of people take up an interpersonal behavior en masse. But based on the friends I surveyed, nicknaming does have at least one practical component for people who date men. As my friend Mary, 27, so eloquently put it, “All the unimaginative American parents of the ’70s and ’80s named their sons the same fucking thing.” A quick scan of my phone proved her point: I have no fewer than a dozen Michaels or Mikes in my contacts, as well as four Dans, five Davids, ten Matthews or Matts, seven variations on John, and four Chrises. And those are only the numbers I bothered to save.
The proliferation of dating apps means that young, single people go through the motions of early dating with more relative strangers than ever before, and when you combine high turnover with a single generation’s most common names, mentioning to your friends that you saw Dave again is as likely to return a response of “Wait, which one?” as it is, “Oh, how’d that go?” As Mary pointed out, “‘The Pilot Who Moved to Paris,’ ‘The Brogrammer in Williamsburg,’ and ‘Shy Bookstore Rebound’ all have Thomas or Andrew on their birth certificates.” Margot, 28, agreed. “Who can remember every Mike, Eric, or Rob their friends date?” If you’re choosing between telling your friends about Kyle or telling them about the Divorced History Professor, it doesn’t take a branding expert to figure out which one will encourage better recall, should you want to discuss him again at a later date without rehashing everything you’ve already gone over.
Beyond being a practical habit, though, nicknaming also worked as a defense mechanism. For both the young straight women and gay men I talked to, it served as a hedge against too-quick emotional intimacy with a new partner and an opportunity to bond with friends by lightly skewering prospective dates’ most visible characteristics or idiosyncrasies. “I think it can be a method of fending off emotions as I steel myself at the dawn of a new relationship,” Mary said. “If he ever ends up hurting me, who cares, because he’s nothing more than the Poet Who Was Obsessed With Anal.” In my own life, that’s been absolutely the case — if I get the sense that my situation with a new man isn’t going to go anywhere interesting, replacing the intimacy of a given name with the aloof ease of a silly nickname helps maintain the mental distance necessary to go on a couple Tinder dates a week without marching myself directly into the sea.
When I talked to some straight men about the practice, they all seemed slightly confused — it was as if none of them had ever secretly watched Sex and the City, leaving them without the opportunity to absorb Carrie Bradshaw’s chief love interest being referred to only as Mr. Big for five seasons. They all also totally denied, in no uncertain terms, ever giving a girl a nickname. Nick, 33, went so far as to say, “I wouldn’t make up a name for a girl because I wouldn’t be talking about her with my friends.” Not only are millennial women’s names a little more diverse than their male counterparts, which results in less confusion, but the discussion of romantic life just isn’t as embedded in the process of straight-male friendship as it is for many straight women and gay men.
Which means, ultimately, that the nicknames aren’t about the men to whom they’re given; they’re about us. The life of a Bumble match may be quick and brutal, but if a tame joke about his love of a particular pair of ugly shoes can be used as a tether to our existing support systems, then maybe whatever temporary drama he caused can have some sort of longterm benefit in our lives. And when we all eventually do find someone worth calling by his first name from the beginning, we can only promise, as a generation of prospective parents, to try a little harder when naming our sons. No one wants their kid to end up in a girl’s phone as Union Pool Gin Guy.