Grandude? G-dawg? Nonny? Boomers Name Themselves

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“What does Samantha call you?” I asked an old friend I don’t get to see often, over breakfast at a diner. I ask my peers that question a lot these days.

My friend, whose granddaughter is 11, rolled her eyes. “We didn’t realize we had to come up with anything more creative than Grandma and Grandpa,” she said. “So, that’s what we are.”

Most of us go through life with names that were bestowed upon us, but when we enter grandparenthood, we get to make choices. Many go with some variant of the traditional: Granny, Nana, Granddad, PopPop.

But as my sardonic friend had noticed, and my own highly unscientific survey confirms, a number of our contemporaries deem those somehow inadequate.

Thus, I know a grandma who goes by Z. And one who has zero Italian ancestors but nonetheless dubbed herself Nonny, a variant on Nonna, because it felt distinctive. And a Brookline, Mass., woman named Suzanne Modigliani, whose daughter’s friends used to abbreviate that to SuMo. Now, she’s GranMo.

Me, I went retro and called dibs on Bubbe, the traditional Yiddish word for grandmother — though I never used it for my own grandmothers, in an era more disposed to assimilation.

Is there a reason for this trendlet?

Sometimes, grandparents have pragmatic reasons for their picks. Given lengthening life spans, a family may already have a presiding great-grandparent, an Opa or an Abuela, which pushes the new grandparent to find some alternative. My friend Dale might have gone with Bubbe, but her children already call their 91-year-old grandmother Bubbe. So Dale will be DiDi to her new granddaughter.

Besides, contemporary family life has grown so complex that the new arrivals may face a whole host of elders — grandparents, step-grandparents, former spouses of remarried grandparents. They all need to be called something.

Which may explain why Georgia Witkin’s “The Modern Grandparent’s Handbook” actually lists 251 grandparental names (I counted), divided by gender into three categories: Traditional, Trendy and Playful. I wouldn’t volunteer to be known as Sweetums, G-dawg, Faux Pa or Grandude, however playfully, but apparently some folks have.

And who can criticize them? Nothing is more personal than a name, especially a name only a handful of beloved people will ever use. (My granddaughter’s other grandparents also took a fairly traditional route, selecting Nana and Saba, the latter being Hebrew for grandfather.)

But my theory is that beyond the logical explanations for the name game, we can discern a couple of underlying motives.

Partly, it’s a boomer thing. Tradition didn’t always seem a good enough reason for this cohort to go along with certain practices back when, so it might not seem like a good enough reason to be called Grandpa now.

A generation of women who entered the labor force, and men who entered the delivery room, isn’t so keen on the old standbys, perhaps. A certain rebelliousness, a desire for individuality, persists. Call me Z. Or, like a Montanan named Mitzi Cline, Gramzi.

But here’s my deeper suspicion: However mightily my peers may pine for grandchildren and adore them when they arrive, some don’t want to acknowledge being old enough to be dubbed Grandpop or Granny.

Such names conjure up gray hair and orthopedic shoes, along with a status our society may honor in the abstract but few boomers actually welcome. We too often won’t use hearing aids, even if we need them. We may not claim the senior discount at the movie theater.

We don’t want these wondrous new creatures calling us names that signify old age, either.

A few high-wattage Hollywood types have been quite open about their distaste for grandmotherly names. Maybe that’s reasonable for folks like Goldie Hawn (“Glam-ma”), who have to contend with the shortage of roles for older actresses.

Most of us aren’t worried about casting directors, though, but about something else. My friend Ellen Edwards Villa sent her mother a “grandma” charm for her charm bracelet when her first grandchild was born.

The gift came back by return mail. Her mother, a mere 69 at the time, objected that she wasn’t old enough to be a grandma. She insisted her grandchildren call her Sweetie Pie, instead, and they did.

“Gigi” seems a particularly popular grandma alternative of late. It makes sense for Frieda Kasden in Rockville, Md., a friend who actually is a great-grandmother. In other cases, I think women just prefer to picture Leslie Caron, circa 1958.

Trying to stave off aging with inventive names doesn’t make sense, of course; you can be a grandparent even before you reach middle age. But ageism, like other prejudices, isn’t rational. In fact, it’s particularly irrational, the elderly being the only marginalized group that all of us, if we’re lucky, will eventually join. But there it is.

The kids could have the last laugh, though. Often, grandparents wind up with some idiosyncratic or downright oddball name, based on what a small child can pronounce, or mispronounce.

Acquaintances have shared a long list of uncommon names bestowed by the grands themselves: Atti, Lito (toddler for Abuelito), Bammy, Yo-yo, Dander, Dodo, on and on.

My late mother-in-law was “grandma” to her older son’s sons. Then her first granddaughter came up with a monosyllabic moniker that was easy to say and suited her, somehow. To her three granddaughters and their parents, she was Fa ever after. She died 17 years ago and I still think of her as Fa.

This raises a terrifying prospect, of course. My own granddaughter, who is now 17 months old and can sound out quite a few words, is beginning to turn Bubbe — which is supposed to rhyme with “hubby” — into something very different.

She’s coming up with a name better suited to a running back at Ole Miss — and there’s a possibility I’ll be “Bubba” for the rest of my life.

Oh no. No no no. Is it too late to revert to Grandma?

Paula Span writes the New Old Age column in the Science section of The New York Times.