The Receiver.

My wife and I are about halfway through our reading of Shirley Hazzard’s best-known novel, The Transit of Venus, and I thought I’d provide a sample of her splendid way with language and her raptor-like view of human interaction. This is a good chunk of chapter 17 (set sometime around the early 1960s by my guess):

In the government office where Caroline Bell worked there was a young woman called Valda. That she was called Valda was to the point, for she objected to this. None of the other women there objected to being Milly, Pam, or Miranda with their appointed Mr. Smedleys and Mr. Renshaw-Browns. None of the other women objected, for that matter, to being girls.

By that epoch the men themselves were no longer Bates or Barkham to one another, but instant Sam or Jim. Those who had irreducibly formal names, such as Giles or Julian, even seemed to be lagging dangerously and doomed to obscurity. There was one older man in Planning who would say Mister to his subordinates—”Mister Haynes,” “Mister Dandridge”—like the skipper of an old ship with his first mate or boatswain. But he too, among the women, permitted himself an occasional Marge or Marigold; although at home calling his charwoman Mrs. Dodds.

When Caro asked, “If they make a true friend, what will they call him?” Valda told her: “They’re hoping to put true friendship out of business.” […]

There was a small inner room like a cupboard where, morning and afternoon, these girls took turns to make the tea. A list was tacked to the wall, of all the men and their requirements: Mr. Bostock weak with sugar, Mr. Miles strong and plain. Valda’s Leadbetter had an infusion of camomile flowers, which he bought at Jackson’s in Piccadilly; these were prepared in a separate pot and required straining. Another notice cautioned against tea-leaves in the sink. The room was close and shabby. There were stains on the lino and a smell of stale biscuits. On one spattered wall the paint was peeling, from exhalations of an electric kettle.

Sometimes when Valda made tea Caro would set out cups for her on a scratched brown tray.

It was something to see the queenly and long-limbed Valda measure, with disdainful scruple, the flowers for Mr. Leadbetter’s special pot (which carried, tied to its handle, a little tag: “Let stand five minutes”). To hear her reel off the directions: “Mr. Hoskins, saccharin. Mr. Farquhar, squeeze of lemon.” She filled the indeterminate little room with scorn and decision, and caused a thrill of wonderful fear among the other women for the conviction that, had one of these men entered, she would not have faltered a moment in her performance.

When Valda spoke of men more generally, it was in an assumption of shared and calamitous experience. None of the other women entered on such discussions—which were not only indelicate but would have mocked their deferential dealings with Mr. This or That. Furthermore, they feared that Valda, if encouraged, might say something physical.

Watching the office women file towards the exit at evening, Valda observed to Caro: “The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea.”

There was another male faction in the office, of ageing young men who spoke bitterly of class divisions and of the right, or absence, of opportunity. For these, equally, Valda had no patience. “They don’t quite believe they exist, and are waiting for someone to complete the job for them, gratis.” She would set down the biscuit tin, switch off the electric kettle. “Oh Caro, it is true that the common man is everlastingly embattled, but he has a lot of people on his side. It’s the uncommon man who gets everyone’s goat.”

Valda would tell Caro, “You feel downright disloyal to your experience, when you do come across a man you could like. By then you scarcely see how you can decently make terms, it’s like going over to the enemy. And then there’s the waiting. Women have got to fight their way out of that dumb waiting at the end of the never-ringing telephone. The receiver, as our portion of it is called.” Or, slowly revolving the steeping teapot in her right hand, like an athlete warming up to cast a disc: “There is the dressing up, the hair, the fingernails. The toes. And, after all that, you are a meal they eat while reading the newspaper. I tell you that every one of those fingers we paint is another nail in their eventual coffins.”

I love “might say something physical,” and I’m glad that women like Valda have always existed even when conditions were not propitious for their flourishing. (My late Aunt Marty, born 1929, was such a one, and it took me a shameful number of decades to appreciate her refusal to conform to the ideal of womanhood.)


  1. “Scorn and decision” is good too, confounding as it does the expectation of “scorn and derision”.

  2. Yes!

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    A counterexample to the claim that “Julian” is an “irreducibly formal” name would be that distinguished Englishman Julian Miles Holland OBE, universally known in practice as Jools Holland.

  4. John Cowan says

    Or else it’s an uncaught typo, which would be my suspicion.


    Further nicknames for Julian include Julie (per Damon Runyan) and Jude (per John Lennon). Granted, these are epicene names, but so are Julian and Jules.

    Giles, of course is a nickname. The formal version is Ægidius.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    My parents-in-law deliberately gave all four of their children names (mostly Gaelic ones) that they thought couldn’t be turned into nicknames (I don’t know why.)

    It didn’t work in any of the cases, though my wife objects to the use of her nickname, which I therefore only use when she is out of rolling-pin range. (I learnt it from her siblings.)

  6. The receiver, as our portion of it is called

    I think the telephone has always been a symmetric device: a transmitter and receiver combined, at the endpoint of each line. I guess “receiver” originally applied to the earpiece of candlestick phones, where the main part comprised both rotary dial and mouthpiece. By the 1950s the mouthpiece had migrated to the receiver, which retained its now inaccurate name. In any case, even if 1950s females were expected to answer rather than make a call, I presume they were expected to speak once they answered.


    McCartney originally wrote “Hey Jules”; I believe the change to “Jude” was for euphony rather than because anybody actually called Julian that.

    Julian > Jules > Jools proves the name is at least bireducibly formal.

    Disyllabic Rachel easily goes to monosyllabic Rach or Rache, but neither spelling is satisfactory. Reginald > Reg is worse in theory but seems much better established.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Nicknames often involve clipping (e.g. Thomas -> Tom), so you’d think monosyllables would be impervious to that, but there are other patterns that work for monosyllables, like John -> Johnny. And you can combine patterns, as in Thomas -> Tommy. Names that are less well-established may for that reason not have a well-established nickname, but it seems implausible that nonce creativity won’t find a way.

    And then, although I feel there’s been a decline since my own birth cohort in their use, there are common nicknames that don’t reliably correspond to any underlying “official” first name. A good example in U.S. usage is “Skip,” which can replace pretty much anything. The hippie rock musician Skip Spence (1946-1999) was formally Alexander Lee Spence, Jr. The three Skips preceding him in wikipedia’s alphabetical-by-surname list of prominent Skips (skipping over, as it were, those whose wiki bios don’t give their full legal name) were formally a Bernard, a Ronald, and a Clarence. The three who followed him (on this same basis) in the same list were formally a Charles, a Theodore, and a Ralph.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Skip James was a Nehemiah:

    If I was called Nehemiah, I’d probably call myself Skip too.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Nehemiah is Skip James the bluesman. The different fellow that wikipedia refers to as “Skip James (baseball)” was a Philip. Also a name found in the Holy Scriptures, of course.

  10. Henry Louis Gates Jr is known as Skip, I don’t know why.

    I remember reading a newspaper article by a woman who, with her husband, decided to name their son ‘Ian’ on the grounds that it couldn’t be reduced any further to a nickname. A few years later a neighborhood boy came knocking on the front door to ask “can Ee come out to play?” To her credit, she thought this was very funny.

  11. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I read at an impressionable age, probably in Readers’ Digest, that Dwight Eisenhower was thus named because his mom was tired of all the males in her family going by hypocoristics, and to the best of her knowledge a Dwight would be a Dwight forever.

  12. the main juleses in my life have been julius, not julian, but those have all, i believe, been echoing a proper yiddish name (yidl, for example, which is itself generally a hypocoristic for yehuda).

  13. January First-of-May says

    and to the best of her knowledge a Dwight would be a Dwight forever

    Wikipedia claims that his famous nickname “Ike” was not short for “Dwight” but for “Eisenhower” (…it has the same initial sound I guess), and that all the boys in his family originally used (versions of) the same nickname but he was the only one to stick with it.

  14. “Or else it’s an uncaught typo, which would be my suspicion.”

    Could be. But on the evidence of this passage, Hazzard doesn’t do pleonasm. She’s radically cliché-averse.

  15. Yeah, that’s a far-fetched hypothesis (that is surprising coming from someone who reads Finnegans Wake).

  16. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I thought Ike was usually Isaac, but wikipedia says it’s also used for Isaiah and Isadore, so the connection to Eis- type names seems fairly strong (for whatever reason!)

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    I have read that Isidor (spelled various ways in various countries) became a stereotypically Jewish name in Germany and some other areas in the late 19th century, generally borne by people whose Hebrew name was Isaac/Yitzhak but who wanted a more assimilationist-sounding name for external use.* So that might have helped motivate the same nickname. Note the collective action problem – it’s parallel to the American phenomenon of so many Ashkenazic parents naming their kids e.g. Morris (typically in parallel with Hebrew name Moses/Moishe) that gentile parents largely abandoned the name, thus largely defeating the assimilationist motive.

    *One of my Cuban-Jewish in-laws is named Isidoro but commonly known as Ike, which no doubt seemed a quintessentially American name when he arrived in the U.S. during the Eisenhower years. I don’t know how common a name Isidoro was or has remained among Cuban gentiles, although it probably couldn’t hurt that the original San Isidoro was Spanish.

  18. Henry Louis Gates Jr is known as Skip, I don’t know why.

    He’s had a leg issue from an early age. He was called “Skippy” because of his gait. Kids.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    The current Leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Canadian parliament is the Hon. Pierre Marcel Poilievre PC, who is apparently routinely referred to as “Skippy Poilievre” by his critics/adversaries but not generally so referred to by his supporters. I don’t know the backstory and it wasn’t worth more than a minute or two of my time to google for it unsuccessfully before I shifted my attention to something else. Perhaps this was a genuine boyhood nickname which he discarded with age (cf “Barry Obama,” typically used in later years only by critics/adversaries); perhaps it’s a more recent coinage — I don’t know if Bill Clinton was ever known in boyhood as “Willie,” but certainly not as “Slick Willie.”

  20. “scorn and decision” is a collocation not unknown to the Great Attic (catalogued by OO) #2 example is Hat’s blog. There are not many:

    From a review of the movie The cry of the children (1912) (based on a poem by Browning – it was the second adaptation in as many months – there is a clip at, possibly of the whole picture): “…going in the night to the home of the rich, to be rejected with scorn and decision,…”

    Sarah Orne Jewett, A country doctor (1884): “…he had been answered, with a scorn and decision worthy of grandmother Thacher herself…”

    There are a few more. Maybe all typos, certainly.

  21. i wonder about patterns of progression with names that have multiple shortenings. did w.j. clinton have a billy to bill shift with age, the way dannies often become dans, and sometimes remain there without aging into daniels? does anyone go from willie to bill, or billy to will, or any of those to liam? do any berties become robs (or, i suppose, als*)? i don’t think i’ve ever met a beth who was previously a liz, but i do know a jeyn with a past as a jenny.

    and just to add another less predictable combination to the pot, i know a jed who is officially jethro (and, if i remember right, a scion of a co-founding family of the reconstructionist movement, to be clear about how that does reflect some rather convoluted assimilationist & distinctivist motives).

    * i do hope there’s someone out there named tram, but it felt like wishful thinking to put it in the main text, even though i do know an anne who’s short for nathan (he has not, to my knowledge, ever been a nat).

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    I don’t think Billy to Bill or Will is only from age considerations. It may be that “Billy” has “good ol’ boy” (as in Billy Carter) connotations for some people (but Billy’s brother kept Jimmy and did not replace or succeed in replacing it with Jim or James).

  23. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Wikipedia is a spoilsport. There has to be some deeper meaning to the fact that all the stuff I remember from Reader’s Digest was factually wrong. (Under the assumption that some of the stuff I don’t remember wasn’t).

  24. i don’t think i’ve ever met a beth who was previously a liz
    Meet my daughter Elisabeth, who comes close – she was (and with close family still is) Lisa since her childhood, but became Beth in an act of teenage self-reinvention.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    Female name shortenings seem to follow several differing patterns
    1.Last 2 syllables (with optional replacement of final a or e with i), e.g., Lena or Leni, Rieke–for Elisabeth this would give Lisbeth
    2. First or stressed syllable + diminutive, e.g., Susi, Gabi–for Elisabeth this would give Elli or Liesl
    3. Some kind of telegraphic version of compound names, e.g, Marlies or MaLu (is this one real or just the character in Babylon Berlin?)–if Elisabeth were interpreted like these, this would give Elsa

  26. David Marjanović says

    Li(e)si is widely attested; I went to school with a Lisi.

    -e has nothing to do with nicknames; I’ve never encountered a Rieke, but Ulrike, Friederike and suchlike already end in -e in the full form. -i is the nickname suffix shared with English and Hungarian.

    Malu is real. (Regional, but all such things are.)

  27. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Spelled Malou in Danish, so we’re clearly a German region now.

  28. @PP: Li(e)sbeth exists, but in my experience, after ca. 1950 it’s usually a shortened name that has become a full name of it’s own, not a shortening of an actual Elisabeth anymore. Similar for Elsbeth. Shortenings that are still used are Liese and Lisa, although they also used as full names. Shortenings based on the last syllable like Beth or Betty are not usual in Germany (although Betty occurs as a full name); my daughter’s switch to Beth was connected to her spending most of her time in an English-speaking environment. Elsa, although originating as a (Scandinavian) shortening, is usually a full name in German. Liesel and its variants are Southern German, the northern equivalent is Lieschen, Liesken. Those mostly are real diminutive forms of full names, although they may sometimes been used as full names (I’ve seen that with Lisl). I haven’t sees Elli used as shortening of Elisabeth, only as full name, but I guess it exists as shortening of the full name as well.
    I’ve never encountered a Rieke
    A dime a dozen in Northern Germany, both as familiar shortening of Ulrike or Friederike and as a full name.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Bettina is a full name too, and was pretty common when & where I grew up; it was used as a nickname for Elisabeth 200 years ago.

  30. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Rikke, Bettina. (Also spelt Betina, because we more or less neutralize length when not stressed).

    I never thought about where the latter came from.

  31. NB that Bettina looks like the shortening / diminutive comes from Italian, not German, so it’s comparable to Elsa. And that reminds me that German has Else.

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