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ICOS 2008 Conference Abstract

Power and the Pragmatics of Nicknames

M Adams
Indiana University, United States

Nicknames distribute power within a social group; nicknames can be imposed, or they can be used by agreement between namer and named. This isn’t the difference between political and apolitical uses of nicknames; agreement is a political act, the result of social negotiation, in which the nickname is a token. Agreement may depend on symmetrical political status, or it may be a means of constructing symmetry within a politically complex relationship.

Agreement is a matter of pragmatics. A cartoon character constantly surrounded by a cloud of his own detritus is called Pig Pen, an impolite and probably hurtful name; will so-called Pig Pen defer to the assumed naming power of the group? The illocutionary force of the onomastic act may be simultaneously familiar and insulting. Pig Pen might reject the name and the group’s authority to name him, but complex illocution allows him to choose the path of perlocution; the tension between illocutionary and perlocutionary force in the nicknaming act is like a treaty, renegotiable as power relations change.

Not all nicknaming relationships are as negotiable as that surrounding Pig Pen. When George W. Bush calls his political advisor, Karl Rove, Turd Blossom, political authority overwhelms resistance by the named.

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