The Grammarphobia Blog

Name dropping

Q: In my reading for an English literature course, I’ve been noticing nicknames like “Ned” (for “Edward”), “Dick” (for “Richard”), “Hal” (for “Harry”), etc. In The School for Scandal, the Sheridan play, I came across “Noll” – apparently a diminutive of “Oliver.” What is the story behind these nicknames?

A: “Noll” used to be a common nickname for “Oliver.” (One of Oliver Cromwell’s nicknames among the English people, when they weren’t calling him something worse, was “Old Noll.”)

In a custom dating from medieval times, people used to add an affectionate “mine” before first names starting with a vowel, and they often dropped syllables as well. Thus “mine Oliver” led to “Noll”; “mine Abel” led to “Nab”; “mine Ann” led to “Nan”; “mine Edward” led to “Ned”; and “mine Ellen” led to “Nell.”

English nicknames are a fascinating subject. The word “nickname” itself is derived from an extremely old word, “ekename” (an “eke” is an addition or a piece added on).

The first published reference to “ekename,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, appeared in 1303. The pronunciation of the expression “an ekename” was misunderstood as “a nekename,” which in turn led to the modern word “nickname,” first recorded in the 17th century.

One common way nicknames were formed was by dropping syllables from the front: “Drew” (for “Andrew”); “Beth” (“Elizabeth”); “Fred” (“Alfred”); “Tony” (“Anthony”); and “Derick” (“Theoderick” or “Roderick”).

Nicknames that use only the first syllables include “Eliza” (“Elizabeth”); “Alex” (“Alexander”); “Fred” (“Frederick”); “Sam” (“Samuel”), and dozens of others, including my own nickname, “Pat” for “Patricia.”

There are even nicknames taken from the middle: “Liz” and “Lisa” (“Elizabeth,” “Elisabeth”); “Della” (“Adelaide”), “Trish” (“Patricia”), and others.

Sometimes nicknames were formed by adding “in” to a first syllable. This is how we got “Robin” as a nickname for “Robert.” And sometimes an “r” in the middle of a name would somehow become an “l,” as in “Hal” (“Harry”), “Mol” (“Mary” or “Martha”); “Dolly” (“Dorothy”); or “Sally” (“Sarah”).

But in our time most nicknames are mere shortenings or are formed by adding “ie” or “ey” or “y” to the first syllable of a longer name. This is how we get “Chris/Christie,” “Dave/Davie,” “Jamie,” “Charlie,” “Johnny,” “Pat/Patty,” “Rosie,” “Gracie,” “Marty,” and a slew of others.

Nobody’s sure how “Margaret” gave us “Peggy,” “William” gave us “Bill,” “John” gave us “Jack,” “Robert” led to “Bob,” “Richard” ended up as “Dick,” or “Edward” led to “Ted.” (My grandfather was a “Ted” but his real name was “Theodore.”)

Thanks for a great question!

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