It can get pretty informal in the 10th floor executive suite at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA Secretary Edward J. Derwinski has nicknames for his personal staff, dubbing some of the women "Little Miss Coffee Maker," "Little Miss Muffet," "Zsa Zsa," "Miss America" and "Lena." Women whom Derwinski doesn't know often get called "Angel."

It's a lifelong habit, Derwinski said yesterday. "I run a very informal, friendly, folksy -- rather than bureaucratic -- office," he said. "All my life I've given people nicknames and pet names . . . . It's just one of my idiosyncratic ways."

And, until yesterday, when Newsweek magazine reported that some women at VA headquarters were livid over the practice and considered it demeaning, Derwinski said he had never received a complaint.

"I guess I've got the friendliest front office in Washington," Derwinski opined.

Some of the women on his staff said they agreed.

"The ones that were livid were the ones that weren't named in the article," said Judy Williamson, a black woman whom Derwinski calls "Lena," as in entertainer Lena Horne.

Williamson, an assistant to Derwinski's deputy, said she was not offended at being called Lena.

"That's just his pet name for me," she said. "He has a pet name for everybody up here and he says it in a way that isn't demeaning. He is a great boss to work for."

"We're not livid," said Mary Jo Munnelly, a program assistant. Munnelly said she picked up her title as "Little Miss Coffee Maker" because she is one of the first to arrive at Derwinski's office and often brews the first pot of coffee there.

"I don't think he means any harm. It's his way of . . . thinking of us all as equals."

Patricia Ireland, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, said, however, that Derwinski's practice was harmful and old-fashioned.

"I'm sure that the secretary of Veterans Affairs does not understand how offensive he is being. But that's what men in position of authority have to understand," she said.

Giving women such names often associated with children and food is "a way of limiting women . . . when, in fact, they are professional people with responsible jobs," Ireland said. "Wouldn't he feel the same way, if someone came up to him and said: 'Hey, Cupcake?' "

At the VA headquarters on Vermont Avenue NW near the White House, the executive staff calls the burly, crew-cut Derwinski "The Big Cheese" and "Mr. D."

"It's a two-way street," said Dennis R. Boxx, VA spokesman. "Few people on the immediate staff call him, 'Mr. Secretary.' "

The secretary's office softball team is called "The Big Cheeses" in honor of Derwinski, some of the workers pointed out.

Some of the men in Derwinski's inner circle also have nicknames. Deputy Secretary Anthony J. Principi is "Sonny Boy" and he calls Derwinski "Papa," Boxx said.

The spokesman said about a dozen of the secretary's personal staff told him yesterday after they saw copies of the Newsweek article that they were not offended by their nicknames and that they supported him. "If he has offended anyone, then apologies are extended," Boxx said.

Derwinski said when he came to Washington as a member of Congress from Chicago 32 years ago he remembered nicknaming a woman with a deep voice.

"You sound like Tallulah Bankhead, the actress," Derwinski announced, dubbing the woman "Tallulah," a nickname she carried until her retirement. That may have started the habit, Derwinski said.

"I guess I'm extremely folksy and informal," the secretary said.