Sticks and Stones and Amazing Grace

Photo by Gretchen Engel

Photo by Gretchen Engel

I hate the hymn “Amazing Grace”.

This is a post I’ve been dying to write mostly because of that iconoclastic line. But it isn’t meant to be a gratuitous use of shock value. It goes to something much deeper. It’s not the song but one word in the first verse, “wretch”. It’s an ugly word in both sound and meaning. A “wretch” is a person who is in a miserable state or condition. It’s homophone, “retch”, means “to vomit”. Pair it with a nickname (Gretch) that I despise although it’s a bit chicken-and-egg which I came to loathe first, the word “wretch” or being called “Gretch the Wretch”.

The issue is that my wise grandmother used to tell me, “sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you.” This platitude never rang true to me. I would have rather been punched. People physically hurt you when you do something wrong. People call you names when you are something wrong. One is used to punish a temporary injustice. The other is used to highlight a physical or character flaw.

How did I get this name?

In fifth grade, I was placed in a magnet program for gifted students. I won’t go into all of the good, bad, and ugly of that situation except that it can be summed up with the second line of A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the worst of times” and the Shakespearean corollary, “all’s well that ends well” because it was one of those defining circumstances that shaped who I am. About the same, time that thanks to the popularity of monogrammed sweaters, I found out that my initials spelled “GEK”, which took all of five seconds for my classmates to pronounce, “geek”.

What did I do about it?

“Wretch” had spiritual ramifications and something surprising came from it. I hated the sound more than the meaning. I have never, ever felt like a “wretch” and contrary, I purposely defied being a “wretch” even in my teenage angst. That’s why I have a hard time singing “a wretch like me” because it rings false to my conversion experience. I was saved when I was eight. Other than picking on my little sister and questioning the authority of my second grade teacher, my sins weren’t exactly wretched. I took the nickname “Gretch the Wretch” and disowned it. From middle school on I was “Gretchen” to most and “Gret” to my friends and family. Don’t be offended if I gently remind you to call me by my full name if you refer to me as “Gretch”.

As for “GEK” at first it too went into the discard pile as I dropped the “E” for “K” when I got married and became “GKE” mostly because I didn’t like “GEE” and as the oldest of two girls, I didn’t want to lose my maiden name. Then I started writing. One day I was spelling out my initials and epiphany! GEKE = “A different kind of GEKE”.

Do you have a nickname that you’ve disowned?

What about one that shaped your identity for good?


About Gretchen E K Engel

Chemical engineer by day, spec fiction writer by night

12 comments on “Sticks and Stones and Amazing Grace

  1. I used to go by Libby…but I have a relative who says it in such a saccharine way that it left a bad taste in my mouth. That relative still calls me Libby, as does my dad. I don’t mind my dad so much, but everyone else calls me Liberty. I’ve made it pretty clear I don’t like “Libby”.

  2. Well, technically, “Kat” IS my nickname, since my full name is Kathryn. I never got called anything weird because of it. I will say, my family–not my husband and kids, but my parents, aunts/uncles, etc–still call me Kathy. I cringe every time. I’ve been Kat since 8th grade to my friends and everyone I’ve met since, and these days don’t even mind Kathryn, but Kathy is so ill-fitting.

    As for my (married) last name….well, I’m sure you can imagine.

  3. My name seems to be a tough one for a lot of people, so instead of Glynda, I’ve been called every name containing or ending in -nda or beginning with G: Linda, Brenda, Rhonda, Melinda, Belinda, Gwen (and all variations), Gloria, Gladys, Glennis, Gillian,..
    Even close friends and some family members have trouble spelling it right (Glenda, Glinda), which is why I go by G.L. for my pen name.

    As for a nickname that shaped my identity, that would be Metalikhan, given to me by a guy at a machine shop where I worked because I was good at tooling repair and I reminded him of 3 people: Mother Teresa, Red Skelton, and Atilla the Hun.
    LOL I was thankful it caught on better than Psycho Tool Lady, but I still was called Honey, Doll, and Sweetie a lot. 🙂

    • I love Metalikhan! And that you do tooling repair. I love that! I’m an engineer and have seen my share of maintenance shops. Plenty of bad coffee and being called Doll, Sweetie, and Honey!

      • I was honestly surprised that the guy called me Metalikhan, especially when he explained the pun involved with the “khan” part.
        Sadly, that machine shop closed and the work went overseas.
        I still keep up with lathe, mill, & grinder skills, and I’ve been delving into old-time machining. Treadle-power, wooden mold carving for castings, & hand-scraping, and I recently got my hands on reprints of 1906 books detailing steam engine design & manufacturing.
        It’s a blast!

        • You are officially my coolest commenter so far! I love old machinery. Sad that the machine shop closed but glad that you still get to do it for fun. I love visiting old factories and museums. And love the steampunk genre!

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