Bearers of distinctive unixes reflect on their initials

Samuel Wolf

“Are you seriously going to write an article about my biggest college insecurity, other than my general incompetence at most things?” Morgan Nelson ’21 asked when I first broached the topic of interviewing her about her unix, man2. 

The unix, she said, has caused her continuous grief ever since it was assigned to her two years ago. “I blame the school for this sometimes,” Nelson said. “Like, what were they thinking? I just can’t picture the person coming up with this unix and being like, ‘Yeah, this is a good idea.’ But I blame my parents as well for giving me such [bad]  initials.” 

The current unix assignment system, which has been in place since 2007 and assigns unixes based on a student’s first, middle and last initials, followed by the number of previous College affiliates with those same initials, can often produce amusing or unfortunate results. Current unixes include cop2, elf4, sob1, ick1, ass4, cry2 and naz1. 

The Office of Information Technology (OIT) is aware of potentially unfortunate results that can arise from the current system of unix assignment, according to Director of Administrative Information Systems Criss Laidlaw, and is willing to change student unixes upon request. Notably, the assignment system used before 2007, in which faculty unixes consisted of a first initial followed by the last name, had equal potential for humor. Professor of Art Emerita Carol Ockman, for instance, can still be reached at [email protected] 

“It’s a formula, so that’s just how it goes,” Ockman said. “A colleague and old friend loves it and has forbidden me to ever change it. I take his point. There’s symbolic gender-bending power there.” Nevertheless, Ockman once requested to have her unix changed to the standard initials-based format, but she said her request was rejected. 

Many students with distinctive unixes, however, are grateful for their assignments. “I generally like my unix,” Emma Truman ’22 (eat2) said. “Pretty much every professor I’ve ever had comments on it when they realize what it is. I guess it’s kinda goofy, but it’s not absurd, so I usually just get some giggles.” 

Christina Yang (cry2), deputy director for engagement and curator of education at the Williams College Museum of Art, added that she appreciates the multitude of meanings contained within her unix. “I think a ‘cry’ can be read in multiple and interestingly always affective ways,” she said. “And that my cry is doubled is even more hilarious or accentuated at least.”

“‘Elf’ was actually my elementary school nickname,” Elizabeth Feeney ’22 (elf2) said. “I think a couple of people have pointed it out, but it has never caused any awkward moments. One professor who saw my unix around Christmas time mentioned that it was quite ‘festive,’ which I really appreciated.”

Given that unixes and initials generally align, many students and staff already felt intimately familiar with their string of letters. “ICK have been my initials my whole life, so now I think it’s pretty funny and less unfortunate,” Isabel Kelly ’23 (ick1) said. 

Pati Sniezek (pms3), who works as a housekeeper in the President’s House, expressed similar sentiments. “Pms3 — well, those are my initials, and I usually get a laugh when people ask for my email,” she said. “It’s all good.” 

Certain students, anticipating laughs, have developed strategies for divulging their email addresses. “Generally, I’ll say ‘It’s, uhhhhhh, sob1’ and try to maintain a balanced sense of awareness and humor throughout the reveal,” Sabrine Brismeur ’22 (sob1) said. “Professors usually think it’s amusing and will chuckle quietly to themselves. Students will straight up laugh at it.”

“I normally just put on a brave face and get it out of the way,” Nelson added. “Sometimes I give them my high school email, though — I’m not gonna lie.”

Aside from Nelson, few students communicated negative experiences with their unixes. Sierra Diaz ’20 (smd3) and Neema Zarrabian ’21 (naz1) claimed never to have had awkward interactions as a result of their assignment. 

Catherine Powell ’22 (cop2) also reported a largely positive experience, though she has found her initials taking on a new meaning in recent years. “I actually have always liked my initials and thus my unix, but the whole ‘cop’ thing has become more politically charged, which does lead to some confusion or light tension,” she said. For Powell, however, this tension manifests more in lab work than in written correspondence. “All my [lab] samples are typically labeled COP,” she said. “The only funny moment I’ve ever had is when I met Caleigh [Paster ’21], who worked with me in lab over the summer and had the unix cop1, which of course ended up being difficult.”

For most, these occasional difficulties are a reasonable burden to bear in exchange for a distinctive unix. “I think my unix [sob1] is incredibly funny and quite representative of me in both respects (the act of sobbing, and son of a bitch),” Brismeur said. “I would not change it for the world.”