Using nicknames to liven up language lessons

If you're looking to liven up language analysis lessons and spark student interest with connections to real life, three Australian academics reckon they've found the perfect topic - nicknames.

Kerry Taylor-Leech, Donna Starks and Louisa Willoughby surveyed 642 students at seven secondary schools in Queensland and Victoria to explore the common features of adolescent nicknaming.

Writing in the Australian Journal of Education, the researchers say not only do the findings offer a rich pedagogical resource, but their study approach could be replicated by teachers on the ground who want to gather their own class data.

'Students [are often] overwhelmed by, and uninterested in the analysis of language use as they do not see its connection with their daily lives,' the journal article notes. '... the linguistic analysis of nicknaming provides an ideal opportunity for teachers to introduce linguistic concepts to a teenage audience that is age appropriate, relevant and meaningful.'

With elements of wordplay, in-jokes, nonstandard spelling, puns and references to celebrities of the day, the authors comment that nicknames act 'as an index of youth culture'.

They suggest the topic and findings of their study could be addressed by teachers of all year levels, but lend themselves particularly well to the content descriptions for the Year 9 English Language strand. '... nicknames fit seamlessly into all areas under two of the sub-strands, namely language variation and change and language for interaction.'

Taylor-Leech is a Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and TESOL at Griffith University, Starks is a Senior Lecturer in Language Education at La Trobe University, and Willoughby is a Lecturer in Linguistics at Monash University.

They asked youngsters to list up to six nicknames that they knew for others, explain the meaning (whether it was related to a name, where they were from, physical appearance, a personal trait, or something else), and circle emoticons to evaluate it as being positive, negative, neutral or a mix. Participants were also invited to share their feelings about their own nicknames.

Ranga (for a person with red hair) was the most commonly cited nickname in the study, clocking up 31 instances, but there was plenty of variation and creativity on show. Of the 2815 nicknames collected, 1846 were different and, of those, 1428 appeared only once.

'This finding is an indication of the richness and creativity of nicknaming as a resource for the exploration of linguistic variation and change,' the researchers say.

One possible classroom discussion could be around spelling conventions. 'Nicknames, particularly those that are name-based, often end in the conventional suffixes -i/-y/ie and -s/z, which occurred in 31 per cent of all the nicknames we collected.'

The majority of nicknames collected (61 per cent) were based on the person's name - including conventionalised name shortenings such as Steph and Woody. There were also examples of sound-play, with the rhyming Wacko Zacko, Claire Bear and Cooper Trooper on the list.

The academics found most participants considered nicknaming to be a positive or at least acceptable social practice: 65 per cent were evaluated as always positive and only 7 per cent always or sometimes negative. Indeed, they note that some nicknames that appeared to be derogatory (including Smelly and Fungus) received positive evaluations.

The researchers suggest this could lead to discussions about the reasons for liking or disliking a nickname students have been given, which ones are more likely to be viewed negatively, the boundaries between nicknames and name calling, and social inclusion and exclusion.

Other possible activities include asking students to research the history of different nicknames and how they may be influenced by age, gender and social relationships.

When it comes to a classroom discussion of unflattering teacher nicknames, the authors say that's a topic perhaps best avoided.


Taylor-Leech, K., Starks, D., and Willoughby, L. (2014). Adolescent nicknaming as a rich linguistic and pedagogical resource for teachers. Australian Journal of Education: (to appear in Vol. 59 issue 1, p.1-14).

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