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PLAY THE NICKNAME GAME WITH GREAT CARE

Nicknames being delightful terms of endearment, there are only two etiquette dangers in using them:

1. You could get a nickname wrong, and offend the person you are addressing.2. You could get it dead right and really offend that person.

In the first instance, you approach Elizabeth saying, "Hi, Liz," and David with, "How're you doing, Dave?"

As she has always been known as Betsy, and he as Chuck, you will have managed to alert everyone within earshot that you don't actually know them. They already know that, of course, but this manages to alert them to your being someone they don't want to know, either.

And that's just by saying hello. Miss Manners can only imagine what a bad guesser could work up to in time.

In the second instance, you approach your pal from elementary school exclaiming, "You haven't changed a bit, Shorty," and your newly married old flame with, "If it isn't Hot Lips!"

These people would consider themselves blessed to be in the position of the first group.

Failing the hope of pretending that they have been identified with fraudulent friendship by someone who doesn't actually know them, they put a lot of effort into creating the impression that you at least hardly know them. So hardly, in fact, that you surely have them mixed up with some other acquaintance.

Considering the land mines inherent in nickname usage, Miss Manners fails to understand why anyone would take the risk.

It is so much safer, when meeting new people, to call them by the names used in the introduction, or, failing that, to inquire what they want to be called.

Admittedly, this is harder with people you are supposed to know and can't remember, or whom you remember only too well but haven't checked in with lately. For that reason, the human being is capable of making funny throat noises that don't quite sound like anything, while keeping an ear out for clues.

Not knowing what to call people is an age-old problem, Miss Manners admits, and one in which age is not a help. But age is supposed to provide just enough wisdom to caution against scattershot attempts.

Nevertheless, Miss Manners notices that things have gotten worse lately. Since the advent of the peculiar idea that a show of intimacy is always flattering, even from strangers, the instances of offense-through-unauthorized-use-of-nicknames has increased frighteningly.

Miss Manners is still fighting the valiant battle against the unauthorized use of first names, and she is not alone. But she can't help being aware that an increasing number of people routinely use and accept such usage without counting it as unwarranted familiarity.

Thus we have such modern treats as the computer-generated letter with its artfully embedded name, which apparently makes at least some people think, "Wow, this company knows all about me and really cares, so where do I sign up?" And we have the telemarketing device of greeting people familiarly so that they will feel, "This person appears to be happy to be friends with me, so the least I can do is show my appreciation by doing business."

However, none of this odd tolerance extends to those who use nick-names that are either incorrect or disliked. Ever.

There is no possibility of anyone's falling for the charm of being either misaddressed or unpleasantly addressed.

Even the person who frightens little children by telling them, "Oh, it makes me feel so old when you call me Mrs. Vanderpool - call me Mimsy" expects to be able to give this permission as she sees fit. And she won't stand for being called Maggie instead.

So the first rule is to wait for permission, and the second rule is to get it right.

The third rule is that all you can hope to get in the way of permission is a temporary license that has to be renewed when the situation changes - when the person in question leaves school for the working world, or is no longer in love with you.

Why this seems to be hard, Miss Manners cannot imagine. But she does understand why it is so hard to get people to stop calling you nicknames you hate.

With strangers and others with no excuse, Miss Manners recommends failing to answer. "Dave? Oh, were you talking to me? That's not what I'm called."

But if they have known you long enough, it is well nigh impossible. The only hope in dealing with relatives and others who date back to your childhood is begging - and blackmail. First, "Please try and remember - you know I hate that," and then, "Okay, Sweet-ums."

Dear Miss Manners: It seems that whenever I eat something, people feel it is their duty to inform me of how much fat/calories or cholesterol is in these items.

I have never had a problem with cholesterol or gaining weight. In fact, I am healthy and very near my ideal weight.

How should I reply to these constant unsolicited remarks?

Gentle Reader: "Want some?"

Dear Miss Manners: I have several female friends who are going to have facial plastic surgery. Is a gift necessary for this type of surgery?

Gentle Reader: Like what, for instance?