My youngest son has had a kind of juvenile sounding nickname since he was itty bitty. That’s partly because he was itty bitty, but also because he shares a first name with one of my cousins and it didn’t seem fair to call him “Li’l___” all the time. Not that I hesitate to call my cousin “Big ___,” because he loves it. Probably.
I always assumed that my son would eventually opt to be called by a more grown-up sounding version of his name, but even though a fair number of people just go ahead and use it anyway, he’s always been adamant that he prefers the juvenile nickname.
Until now. In the last couple of weeks, my highly imaginative, incredibly funny, ukulele-playing, ten-year-old son has told me multiple times that if I want to call him by his grown-up name, I can.
The problem with that of course is that I don’t really want to. And even more importantly, I can’t really tell if he actually wants me to. He’s kind of inconsistent about the whole thing, like the change isn’t so much his idea, but just a bending to the expectations of the people around him.
I suppose that’s often how we get the names people use for us anyway. The fresh faced outlaw, possibly named William Henry McCarty (though even that is under some dispute among historians), who decided to call himself William H. Bonney when he first entered his life of crime, had little to say about it when he soon became known as Billy the Kid.
My favorite tall tale of the way it happened involves a blacksmith by the name of Frank Cahill who’d had too much to drink and didn’t like the look of William when he moseyed into the saloon. The older man allegedly began to mock the younger, saying something like, “You look like a scared li’l ol’ Billy goat. That’s what I’m gonna call you. Billy the Kid Goat.” Obviously Billy shot the drunken bully, but because horrible nicknames have a way of sticking, the rest is made up history.
It’s a good story, the kind that makes for great Western lore, but it’s far more likely Billy the Kid was assigned his nickname by J. H. Koogler, publisher of the Las Vegas Gazette, who printed the name for the first time on December 3, 1880, probably just because Bonney was so young.
There’s no real indication whether or not the youthful criminal appreciated his nickname. But he probably did not give it to himself. And despite what you may have learned from those most excellent time travelers Bill and Ted, it’s not likely he expected anyone to call him Mr. The Kid.
Billy’s career as a hardened criminal, though depicted in at least 50 Hollywood films (in which it should be noted he more closely resembles Emilio Estevez than he does a goat), lasted only about four years. His birthdate is a little disputed, but most accounts place him at about 21 when he was shot and killed by Sherriff Pat Garrett. Of course, much like Elvis, he may also have lived to be an old man under an assumed name.
And maybe he did. Because I suppose nobody can carry around a name like “The Kid” forever and if he hadn’t taken control of the situation, he might have eventually become known as William the Goat Face. So if my son means it and really wants to transition his name into something that can grow with him a little better, I’ll be glad to help him do so.