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Don't Call Me That

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Ever wonder why the names we are known by are often completely different than our birth names? I'm referring to the man whose name is William but everyone calls him Bill. Or the woman we call Peggy whose real name is Margaret. I've long been baffled by the source of these nicknames. I mean, it's obvious why my son Joseph is called Joe. But I've never been able to connect why someone named John suddenly becomes Jack. I'm even vague on why everyone wants to call my son Anthony Tony.

Now I have the answers. Well, sort of. This is the best explanation I've been able to track down.

To unravel it all, we have to go way back to the Middle Ages. People have always wanted to refer to their friends less formally. When we like someone, we want to give them endearing names, something that shows our affection and our close relationship. Back home in Massachusetts, where I'm from, we added a 'y' or 'ie' to everything. John became Johnny. My name, Darcia, became Darcie. Back in the Middle Ages, their way of showing endearment was to add -kin, -in, or -cock to the end of the name.

To use my example of John being called Jack, we can follow the path through the Middle Ages -- though it's a little crooked. To his friends, John became Jankin or Jenkin. (I don't know why it wouldn't have been Johnkin.) That was eventually shortened to Jakin, which in turn became Jack.

Over the centuries since, we've lost the reasoning behind the nickname. We no longer start out calling John Jenkins. But many of these endearments remain in the form of surnames, such as Jenkins, Wilkins and Tompkins. So if your name is John Jenkins, you're really John John.

Okay, but what about Bob for Robert and Bill for William? These nicknames came to us through the rhyming game, which was also a form of endearment. Robert was shortened to Rob and rhymed to Bob. William followed a similar route, being shortened to Will and rhymed to Bill.

Our name game is further complicated by the Norman Invasion of England in 1066. The native population had trouble with some of the new sounds in the Norman's language, including the sound from the letter r. This resulted in new nicknames. Rather than Barb for Barbara, she became Babs. Harold became Hal, Margaret became Maggie and Teresa became Tess.

Letter combinations were also pronounced differently back then. The letters 'ch' together were pronounced as a 'k' and 'th' was pronounced as a simple 't' sound. This is how we got Ted from Theodore and Tony from Anthony. This also explains the surviving spelling and pronunciation of names like Thomas, Theresa and Anthony. (In the U.S., we now combine the 'th' for the traditional sound, though in the U.K. it is often still a silent 'h'.)

Dizzy yet? I know I am. But we're not done.

How did Helen become Nel and Edward become Ned? These nicknames stemmed from an early tradition of adding 'mine' in front of a name to show endearment. (Though I'm leaning toward possessiveness here, rather than endearment.) Eventually, the word 'mine' was shortened to only the 'n' sound at the beginning of a name. This made Edward, whose name was shortened to Ed, then tagged with the 'n' for mine, 'N'-Ed or Ned.

I learned one final piece of nickname history. The tradition we now have of adding 'y' or 'ie' to a name in order to form a nickname began in Scotland. From there, it spread to England, then over here to the U.S.

There you have it. Nicknames do make sense after all. Sort of. I hope you now know how you wound up with your nickname! 

You can find all this information, plus some extra stuff here: www.namenerds.com/uucn/advice/nickhistory.html