Some of my favourite parts about being Australian are our irreverence and our cheeky nicknames. But when it comes to labelling suburbs in our city, it can have a sinister side.
There are a number of studies suggesting that people whose surname is a job title – like “baker” or “farmer” – are statistically more likely to enter that profession. It’s called nominative determinism and it literally means “name-driven outcome”. There’s some evidence that genetics play a role in the predisposition to pursue the same career as your ancestors, but it also holds weight that constantly being referred to as something increases your chances of becoming it. Maybe having the surname “Taylor” is why I became a comedian; I enjoy working with high-quality material.
Highpoint Shopping centre is sometimes nicknamed “Knifepoint”.Credit:Justin McManus
So is it the same for suburbs and other locations? When we call Highpoint “Knifepoint” – in jest or otherwise – we could essentially be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by signalling to juvenile delinquents that stabbing people is the expected local pastime. Or if you’re a stoner hippy, you’ll find yourself drawn to look at rental properties in “Dandybong”.
This is why I think we have to be careful about the nicknames we give our suburbs in Melbourne. We’ve all come across those cheeky Facebook memes where Frankston is referred to as “Shankston” or “Franghole” or “Frankenstein”. When residents of the suburb do it, it’s the charming self-deprecation that we love in Australia, like teasing family members or ribbing our mates.
But when people from other suburbs do it, I can’t help but hear some acerbic intent behind it, as if that’s where people of a certain demographic belong. It must have a subliminal influence on people when they’re considering where to live, like “We can’t live in Frankston, we own a corgi!”
Then there’s the straight-up offensive implications of those who turn suburb names into racist portmanteaus. Once you get past the primary-school level word play, you’re essentially left with casual racism – another quintessential Australian pastime.
Dandenong Market.Credit:Wayne Taylor
Oh but Simon, what if lots of people from that country live there? Well call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure you’re not equally calling Brighton “White-ton” or Camberwell “CamberWASPs”. It’s never an insult when it comes to the status quo, but somehow when a minority pops up the race-based puns roll in.
At best, nicknames are a harmless jab at the way a name sounds. At worst, they perpetuate a veiled class bigotry by making you chuckle whenever someone says “Grimbank” or “Scumshine”.
So here’s my solution: companies spend millions of dollars on rebranding the image of their products in order to improve public perception of them. Perhaps each city council should employ a similar strategy to their locales. There’s a plethora of young comedians in this city. Task them with the job of using our charming Aussie humour to elevate a suburb, rather than to degrade it. Hell, we might even get to use that nominative determinism as an effective tool for town planning. Who wouldn’t want to live in Funbury?
Frankston has been pushing “Funky Town” for a while, and I’m all for it. In fact, make it the disco capital of Victoria to live up to the name. Give Footscray a revamp to “Foods-cray” and celebrate the fact that you can eat a meal from almost any culture in that glorious neighbourhood. Melton can be “Melt’n pot” and have a yearly multicultural festival.
Perhaps Werribee should be nicknamed “Cari-bee”.
Werribee can be “Care-ibee” and use a zookeeper tenderly feeding a meerkat as their logo. Build a world-class university in Craigieburn and call the suburb “Craigie-learn”. What a utopia we’d create if we subsidised fine-dining in the newly world-renowned suburb of “Dandynoms”.
I’m not saying we need to abandon our Aussie abbreviations that affectionately turn Reservoir into “Rezza” or Brunswick into “Brunny”. I’m just highlighting that not all nicknames are created equal and the long-term psychological impact of the negative ones shouldn’t be dismissed.
But, hey, what do I know? My nickname at school was “Father Simon” because I came off preachy. I guess I grew into that name too.
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