The Story Behind RBG’s Childhood Nickname Is *So* Sweet

by Tatiana Tenreyro
Allison Shelley/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Since becoming a pop culture icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is known to many by her infamous nickname "Notorious RBG," solidifying her status as the ultimate judicial badass. But before receiving that moniker, the Supreme Court justice had a far less intimidating nickname. But why is Ruth Bader Ginsburg called "Kiki" by some?

The family nickname will become known to many, thanks to its several mentions in the Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. A few people close to her her, including then-ACLU legal director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), who attended summer camp with Ginsburg, refer to her by her childhood nickname. But how did she get it?

According to the book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the nickname was given to her by her older sister, Marilyn. Ginsburg elaborated further in her 2016 autobiography, My Own Words, saying she earned the nickname for being a “kicky baby.” Sadly, Marilyn passed away from meningitis when Ginsburg was two years old. Since her sister’s passing, going by hew sister's name for her became a sweet way of remembering Marilyn.

Though Ginsburg is well past her (literal) kicking days, you can’t help but think how appropriate the moniker still is, considering how much she’s kicked the patriarchy’s butt over the years. But the women’s rights icon doesn’t really go by that nickname anymore. It’s reserved for those who are close to her and have known her since her “Kiki” days.

In a CNN interview, her childhood friends Ann Kittner and Harryette Helsel reminisced about how, prior to Ginsburg’s name being known worldwide, they simply knew her as their friend Kiki. “Justice Ginsburg, I cannot call Ruth. We call her Kiki,” said Helsel.

Ginsburg also has another nickname that proves how badass she is. The Notorious RBG biography mentions that she’s also referred to as T.A.N., which stands for “tough as nails.” The title was given to her by her long-time personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, who remains in awe of her physical strength. “I mean, she’s not the heaviest or stoutest lady, but she’s tough,” said Johnson. “She works just as hard in the gym as she does on the bench.” Now T.A.N. is even more warranted, considering Ginsburg quickly began working out again soon after being hospitalized for three fractured ribs late last year.

But Kiki and T.A.N. don’t quite carry the gravitas of Notorious RBG. Back in 2014, around the time that her nickname became popular, Ginsburg told Katie Couric that she was thrilled to find out about the moniker, coined by New York University law student Shana Knizhnik, but needed to have it explained to fully appreciate it. “She has created a wonderful thing with Notorious RBG," the Supreme Court justice said. "I will admit I had to be told by my law clerks, what's this Notorious. And they — they explained that to me."

But seeing the legend referred to her as Kiki in the film is particularly touching, and it serves as a reminder that before becoming the unstoppable force she is today, Ginsburg was like any other young girl.