A Look at the Diminutives and Nicknames in Hemingway’s In Our Time

The use of diminutive names and nicknames in the dialogue of In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway creates a subtle but powerful effect. Parsing these subtleties requires an understanding of the relationship between the speaker and the listener, as well as grasping the moment in the context where the diminutive name appears. Like the bending of guitar strings, the insertion of the diminutive name refracts a speaker’s tone and changes the surrounding message of the words. The names “Wemedge,” “Tiny,” and “Nickie,” placed well in the stories, allow readers to peer further into character relationships.

In regard to relationships, Hemingway seems to create a fuzzy classification for using diminutives names. The diminutive name tends to appear in dialogue between three groups of speakers: lovers, superiors/subordinates, and friends. The first group, lovers, uses the diminutive to soften dialogue. In “Out of Season” the husband says to his unthrilled wife, “I’m sorry you feel so rotten, Tiny…I’m sorry I talked the way I did at lunch” (99). In “The Doctor and The Doctor’s Wife” the woman uses the word “dear” five times in an attempt to soothe the Doctor after his “row” with Dick Boulton (26-27). Conversely, the narrative part of “The End of Something” calls Nick’s girlfriend “Marjorie,” but when Nick speaks to her he says, “I don’t know Marge. I don’t know what to say” (34). Hemingway removes the diminutive name in this instance. The removal of the diminutive makes Nick’s remarks more effective in breaking up with Marjorie. In this context, Nick wants to be abrasive to her, not soft, thus the omission of the diminutive name.

The second group consists of subordinates and superiors. When a superior uses a diminutive name to address a subordinate, she leans on the name for leverage to reassert rank in the order of the relationship. In “Soldier’s Home” Harold’s mother says to her son Harold, “Don’t you love your mother, dear boy?” (75). The diminutive name is also used as a form of humbling oneself, particularly after a mistake. In “Indian Camp,” when Nick witnesses the aftermath of suicide Nick’s father says, “I’m terribly sorry I brought you along, Nickie” (18). Prior to this statement, Nick’s father spoke in strict condescension to “Nick.”

In dialogue where the subordinate speaks using the diminutive name of a superior, the subordinate seems to use the name from habit, but other faint versions of leverage materialize as well, such as cuteness and placation. Young Nick embodies the diminutive, and speaks with perhaps the purest usage when he says with wide-eyed wonderment, “I know where there’s black squirrels, Daddy” (27). Likewise, Harold’s little sister calls Harold “Hare” out of admiration, not manipulation. She subordinates herself through admiration and awe of Harold. As an older child, Harold, wise to adulthood, uses the diminutive name to placate a superior as if the rules of the name game no longer elude him. Harold caves to his mother’s leverage out of habit and a desire to quiet her when he says, “I know, Mummy…I’ll try and be a good boy for you.” (76) He wants her to shut up, and not out of admiration.

Where diminutives appear as nicknames between friends, the usage does not emit the same subtle manipulations that lovers and subordinate/superior relationships do. When Nick is called “Wemedge” in “The Three Day Blow,” Bill uses the nickname to bolster and massage his perceived influence over Nick. Bill certainly uses the nickname as a tool for manipulating his tone to Nick, but as a friend, an equal of Nick’s, Bill has no real authority. When Bill says, “You were very wise, Wemedge,” and, “I tell you, Wemedge, I was worried while it was going on,” the inserted nickname of “Wemedge” buttresses the words as reminders to Nick that Bill is a trusting friend (46, 48). However, Nick’s mind wanders quickly away from Bill’s message. Nick has no permanent bond to Bill. In “Soldier’s Home,” Harold, in contrast to Nick, by instinct subdues himself because of the mother-son relationship he faces. Another case of a diminutive nickname between friends appears in “The Battler” with Ad Francis repeating a nickname: “He says he’s never been crazy, Bugs” (57). Ad says “Bugs” several times to his friend. The insertion of nickname in this sense creates an effect like the Canadian addendum of “Eh,” which often operates as a transfer of conversation for affirmation. If only to elicit a nod of agreement from Bugs or to feel in the majority, Ad speaks to Bugs in this manner, excluding Nick from his circle.

The diminutive name in In Our Time is used to influence the listener. It seems to wield a certain power, and the timing of Hemingway’s diminutives shows that a character often reserves the right to use the diminutive until a need arises, like when Harold’s mother needles Harold: “I’m your mother. I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny baby” (76). She uses the diminutive name to lightly persuade her son. When the husband in “Out of Season” urges his wife to depart, he concludes with the subtle appeal: “Why don’t you go back? Go on back, Tiny” (100). Later in the same story, Perduzzi uses the word “caro” with expectations. Perduzzi had “called the young man caro several times and nothing had happened” (102) The Italian word “caro” means “beloved.” Only here does Hemingway explicitly note an expectation for using a diminutive name. In all other instances, this expectation subtly floats between the lines, in the lilt of the refracted tone.

The nuances of diminutives make reading “In Our Time” challenging, since body language and facial expressions usually accompany the spoken words. Hemingway’s tough and terse style shadows the subtleties, but seldom used diminutives emerge because they have greater meaning. In other words, the tendency of new lovers to use pet nicknames ad nauseum quickly begins to lack meaning. When a diminutive name gets shed by growing up, such as Billy Tabeshaw becoming Bill, or by love’s fading, the reappearance of a retired diminutive name becomes meaningful. When Harold reverts back to calling his mother “Mummy,” the word swells on the page because Harold has already graduated from childhood and fought in a war. In “The Battler,” Nick sheds his trust in diminutive names when the railroad brakeman manipulates him with the word “kid.” Nick scolds himself, “What a lousy kid thing to have done. They would never suck him in that way again” (53). In daily conversation and relationships, we use diminutives and nicknames automatically, like a nervous response. Despite the lack of description of body and face movements, Hemingway makes his dialogue palpable by using diminutive names in natural placement because as readers we understand the implications unconsciously.

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