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07 February, 2012


I have often wondered about certain names in the English language that have no apparent correlation with standard nicknames assigned to them.  Take my own first name for instance -- Richard.  I was christened Richard and my birth certificate clearly shows "Richard", yet from the word go I was called "Dick".

For others, two first names may be a bit confusing.  I have found, however, that there can be an upside to having both a birth name and one of the many standard associated nicknames.  For me it is a matter of mood.  If I am feeling particularly "uppedy" or professional, I tend to use the more distinguished and formal name Richard.  If, on the other hand, I am feeling...well, feeling just plain common ordinary Dick, I use the name Dick.  Regardless, I always have to think twice when introducing myself or signing my name.  What, or who, do I feel like at the moment is the modus operandi.

As the proverbial fellow once said:  "Call me anything you want, just don't call me late for supper!"

A recent virtual history group discussion about the name of a former mayor of my home town, sparked my curiosity this morning.  A photo (circa 1940) of this particular individual is apparently labelled "Donald" Thomson yet one member of the group has suggested that he may have been known as "Dan".  I suggested that both names have every possibility of being correct, as strange as it may seem.  I know one other Donald who was better known as Dan, several Jacks who were Johns, Williams who were Bills, Eds who were Teds and Margarets who were Peggys, just to list a few.

On the surface this makes absolutely no sense at all, but a little research has cast some light on the subject for me.  Carol Wilkens, a communications professor who dabbles in writing and research, has taken it upon herself to study how certain standard nicknames came about and it is fascinating how far back in history many of them go.  Here is a sample of some of the names she has explored.

*I should clarify at this point that "standard" nicknames are not to be confused with with nicknames arbitrarily applied to individuals on the basis of physical characteristics, family connections, fondness, habits, sports, jobs or vocations.

One of the most famous bearers of this name, John F. Kennedy, was known to friends and family as "Jack." But I wonder if he knew how much history that name had? John is a name with history stretching back far into Biblical times. However, during medieval times, the name John was altered slightly in the Germanic tongues to Jankin or Jackin. Out of that, we get the nickname Jack.
Just as with the previous name, medieval times brought about Dick as a nickname for Richard. The Normans, descendents of Vikings who resided in northern France, had a unique way of trilling their "r" sounds. When the English attempted to pronounce Richard as the Normans did, it was reported that they could not quite do it correctly and the "r" came off sounding like a "d". Thus Dick became a pet name for Richard.
Just as with John, Hank was derived from Hankin, a form of Jankin. Originally Hank was a nickname for John but over time it became closely associated with Henry.
Harry was the Medieval English form of the Germanic name, Heimiric or Henry.
James-Jim, Jimmy
The medieval pet form of James was Jim. Many of the names in medieval Europe were altered like this because of the conflicts in languages. In England for a time, there were contradictory Romance languages of the Norman French and the harsher, guttural languages of the Germanic tribes: the Danes, the Saxons, and the Celts. When one couldn't pronounce the name exactly, a new name was born. But the original name never went away completely. This is also how you get Molly as a nickname for Mary.
Margaret-Megan, Meg, Peggy
Margaret was derived from a Romance language (Latin) so it did not translate easily into Welsh (a Germanic-derived language.) Megan was the form the Welsh used and Meg/Peg/Peggy were nicknames for Megan. Today, most use Megan as a formal name but some do use it as a nickname for Margaret.
Sarah-Sadie, Sally
Sadie most likely came about as a nickname for Sarah based on the medieval English attempt to pronounce the Norman trilled "r". (See Richard-Dick) The "r" came off as a "d" sound in English. Sally probably came about due to similar circumstances. Some Germanic languages may have attempted the trilled "r" and it came off as an "l" sound.
Edward-Ted, Teddy
Again, Edward was derived from the Norman French and English/Germanic speakers interpreted it as Ted or Teddy.
Susannah is also a Romance language name and Sukie was the closest pronunciation the Germanic tribes could associate.
The list is extensive and most can be traced back to the conflict in the Romance languages versus the Germanic tongues. So if you are curious about a name and nickname pairing, check to see what language they are derived from. And most likely, you will have found your answer.

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