Tag Archives: diminutives

Nicknames: The English element

We have by no means exhausted the possibilities when it comes to discussing medieval nicknames, so we will probably revisit this topic again in spring! But to close out this month’s discussion of nicknames, we thought we’d take a look at specifically English diminutive suffixes.

One caveat, we’ll be focussing on Middle English diminutives, rather than Old English ones. There is a surprising diversity of Old English nicknames, but they tend to be hypocoristics rather than diminutives, and we currently don’t have enough Old English data to be able to say anything useful or interesting. So we’ll leave that topic for later and focus on two uniquely English diminutive suffixes: -cock and -kin. Both of these were in use by the beginning of the 13th C, and had mostly fallen out of use by the middle of the 15th, with their traces being left in modern surnames (think Atkins and Hitchcock) rather than modern given names.

The first suffix is a bit of an onomastic curiosity; its origin is obscure. Withycombe hypothesize that it is related to Middle English cok (identical with Middle French coq), used in the sense of ‘good fellow’; however, examples of this as a word long post-date the first instances of the suffix in given names. [1] This suffix was never common, and we don’t currently have any examples in our data, but look forward eagerly to the day when we do!

The suffix -kin shows up earlier, from the middle of the 12th C [2]. The earliest examples are English renderings of Dutch and Flemish -ke(n), the masculine versions of the suffixes discussed here. Our examples of this suffix show up not only in England, but also Ireland and Wales, showing the spread and influence of English naming practices in conquered territories. Dackin is a Welsh pet form of David, while Hopkin is a nickname of Robert. From the root name John, we have Jannekin and Jenkin in England, and in Wales Siamkin and Jenkin. Simkin is a Middle English diminutive of Simon, while Willekin is a diminutive of William, found in 12th C Ireland. Our single example of this spelling of the suffix outside of England is Wolterkin, a diminutive of Walter showing up in 14th C France; the person in question is almost certainly from the Low Countries.


[1] Withycombe, E.G., The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. xxxiii.

[2] Reaney, P. H., & R. M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames (London: Routledge, 1991; Oxford University Press, 1995), p. xxxix.


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Nicknames: Latinate diminutives in -el, -et, -in, -on, -ot

In this post, we look at a collection of diminutive suffixes: -el, -et, -in, -on, -ot, and their feminine forms. Withycombe calls them French [1], and while their use in England was certainly strongly influenced by the invading Normans, the suffixes ultimately derived from Latin, and as a result can be found throughout Romance-speaking areas. These diminutive suffixes were used individually but also in combination with each other, as in the name Mathelin, a French diminutive of Matthew formed by adding -el and then -in, or in Arthurian Lancelot, formed from Lance by addition of -el and -ot.

Many common modern names reflect the use of one or more of these suffixes. For example, Marion and Alison, now often considered independent names in their own rights, derive from Mary and Alice with the addition of -on. Another familiar modern name, Colin, shows the use of -in added to Colas, a French hypocoristic of Nicholas; Col(l)ette is constructed in a similar fashion from Nicole). Harriet derives from Harry, an English spelling of the French pronunciation of Henry, while Charlotte is a feminine form of Charlot, a French diminutive of Charles; the Italian cognate is Carlotta. The same suffix added to Elias gives Eliot.

The suffix -ot was quite popular in feminine names in both England and France between the 14th and 16th C, when we can find names such as Agnesot (from Agnes), Clarote (from Clara), Em(m)ot (from Emma), Harriot (like Harriet), Margot and Marguerot (from Margaret), Mariot (from Mary), Ph(e)lippote (from Philipa). In England, Wil(l)mot was an incredible popular diminutive of Willelma in the 16th C.

In our earlier survey of where diminutive forms are the most popular, we saw that Portugal and Spain were among the regions with the lowest percentage of nicknames. What we do see in Iberia are diminutives formed by these suffixes. In Spain, the most common suffixes are -ino/-ina and -ot (for men) and -eta (for women), with examples such as Angelina (from Angela), Blanquina (from Blanche), Bernardino (from Bernard), Francina (from Frances), Huguet (from Hugh), Johanot (from John), and Loreta (from Laura). We have only two diminutives from Portugal — not enough to draw any conclusions from — and both are examples of Joaninus, an early 13th C diminutive of John.

Finally, we comment on the use of these suffixes in Italy, in particular in one data set from Imola in 1312 [2]. This dataset has 2165 men bearing a total of 734 distinct name forms, and 326 women bearing a total of 174 distinct name forms; in this data set, nearly half of the names are hypocoristics or diminutives. There are 35 distinct diminutive suffices in the data, ranging from suffixes which appear only once to one which has 105 instances. 26 are used by men, 9 by women, and one is used by both men and women. Seven of the suffixes are compound, as in the examples of Mathelin and Lancelot above. In four cases, the first suffix is -(l)in-, being compounded with -ella, -ell(i)us, and -ucius; two of the remaining three have the same second suffix, -ellus, being compounded with -in- and -con-. As a result, the data shows a strong preference for compounding with -lin- and -ellus, with only one compound suffix containing neither of these (Bertholloctus, from Berthold); and this is the only example of this compound. The penchant the Italians had for stringing together diminutive suffixes results in some rather short names having excessively long nicknames. The most amusing example of this is Ugo, an Italian form of Hugh. The root name is about as short as you can get, but take a look at the variety (and length) of the nicknames!

  • Ugetus
  • Ugucio
  • Ugutio
  • Ugollus
  • Uguitio
  • Ugutius
  • Ugolinus
  • Ugezonus
  • Ugozonus
  • Uguzonus
  • Ugucionus
  • Ugoçonellus
  • Uguçonellus
  • Ugilinellus
  • Ugolinellus
  • Ugolinucius
  • Ugolinutius
  • Ugolinellius
  • Ugunzuyellus
  • Uguitionellus

These examples put paid to the idea that the nickname is a shorter, easier-to-use form of the name!


[1] Withycombe, E.G., The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. xxxii.

[2] Uckelman, Sara L., “Given Names in Early 14th-Century Imola”, article in preparation.

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Nicknames: The diversity of Italy

We’ll report on the DMNES team’s trip to Bolzano in an upcoming post, but today we’re going to investigate Italy in a different way!

While Italy may not have the highest percentage of nicknames of the geographical areas that the Dictionary currently covers, but it definitely has the most diverse. While other cultures tend to form nicknames by either truncating names into hypocoristics or by adding a diminutive suffix, both practices are mixed indiscriminately in Italian names — a name can first be truncated into a hypocoristic form, then augmented with a diminutive suffix, and then truncated again, and maybe augmented again, to the point where tracing from a nickname back to its root form is an exciting, and sometimes impossible, task. For example, take Giovanni, the standard Florentine form of John. In data from Florence and environs between 1282 and 1532 [1], more than 20 different forms of this name can be found, most of the nicknames:

  • Simple hypocoristics: Nanni, Vanni
  • Simple diminutives: Gianaccimo, Giovannanto, Giovannino, Giovannozzo
  • Diminutives of hypocoristics/Hypocoristics of diminutives: Nozzo, Vaccino, Vaccio, Vannozzo, Vannino, Vannuccio
  • Diminutives of diminutives: Giovacchino

For example, Giovanni > Giovannozzo > Vannozzo > Nozzo, takes the root name, adds a diminutive suffix, truncates it, and truncates it again. Looking at any individual step, the path is clear: But looking at the first and the last, few people who don’t know the interim would believe that Nozzo is a nickname of Giovanni!

Another name which shows similar complexity in the construction of nicknames is Iacopo or Giacomo (Jacob). From Giacomo you can get to Giacomino, and from there to Mino. From Iacopo or Giacoppo, you can get to Iacopozzo and Coppo. Puccio is a hypocoristic of Iacopuccio, a diminutive. But the strangest nickname is one that doesn’t fall neatly into the hypocoristic/diminutive distinction we’ve bee working with: Lapo. It comes from Iacopo by truncating it and then changing the initial consonant/vowel cluster. From Lapo we then get Lapaccio, Lapaccino, Lapone, Lapuccio (a hypocoristic of which is again Puccio). Just as the route from Giovanni to Nozzo isn’t immediately obviously, neither is the route from Iacopo to Lapaccino!

Diminutives are generally straightforward to identify the root name of, since all they do is augment another name. Hypocoristics which are formed by cutting off the final part of the name are likewise relatively straightforward. But hypocoristics which are formed by cutting off the first syllable or two of a name often become impossible to identify the root name, for there are many possibilities. We mention two examples: Rigo and Bello. Rigo or Rico can be a hypocoristic of Arrigo, F(r)ederico, Rodrigo, etc., while Bello can either be a standalone name in its own right (from Latin bellus ‘beautiful, fair’) or a nickname of any name ending in -b- or -p- augmented by the diminutive suffix -ello, such as Jacobello or Spinalbello. Similar ambiguities show up on the feminine side; Bella can be a standalone name in its own right, or a hypocoristic of Jacobella (Jacoba), Isabella, Bellaflor, or any of other various names beginning with Bella-.

The diversity of Italian nicknames is also evidenced by the variety of diminutive suffixes which are in use — but we will save them for another post as they show up in French and Spanish as well, as they are ultimately from Latin. The month is drawing to a close and there is so much more left to explore — we may have to pick nicknames up again as a monthly topic in the New Year!


[1] Online Tratte of Office Holders 1282-1532 (Brown University, Rhode Island), http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/tratte/.

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Nicknames in medieval Estonia

In our previous post, we surveyed the percentage of diminutive and hypocoristic forms in the Dictionary’s dataset sorted according to modern countries, and one stand-out surprise was Estonia: Over 40% of our citations are nicknames of some form! Why is it that diminutives and hypocoristics were so popular in medieval Estonia?

Well, we aren’t exactly in a position to answer the why, but we can look at the what — what are the types of nickname patterns that we see, do they differ between men and women, can we say anything interesting about these patterns vs. those in nearby countries? That’s what we will explore in this post.

First, the feminine names: Only two of the nicknames belong to women, and both come from a Middle Low German contexts. The first is, in the vocabulary we introduced, a hypocoristic, formed by taking a name and truncating it to make a pet form. The example is Barbar, from Barbara. This same diminutive also shows up in Latvia, again in MLG contexts. The second is a diminutive, formed by adding the Low German diminutive suffix -ke, to the root name Anne, to result in the form Anneke. As with Barbar, Anneke also shows up in Latvia at roughly the same time.

This leaves over 600 diminutive forms left, of which nearly 10% — 53 — are Hans, a German hypocoristic of Johannes, one of the standard Latin forms of John, and if we add variants such as Hannes, Han, Hanß, etc., the number rises significantly. From about the middle of the 12th C on, John quickly became far and away the most popular man’s name throughout Europe. In German dialects, Hans, Hanns, Hannes, etc., were often as much more popular than Johannes or Johan than these names were than the next most popular.

So, one answer to the ‘why’ is: Because Low German was a standard documentary language in late medieval Estonia, and the most popular masculine name in late medieval Low German contexts was a diminutive, so that is why there are so many diminutives in medieval Estonia. (This, however, doesn’t address the other why question, which is why the nickname forms were more common than full forms!)

Hans makes up just under 10% of the masculine nicknames; a large percentage of the remainder are covered by just a handful of other names: Cord, Kord, Kort, a Low German hypocoristic of Conrad; Hintze, Hennyng, Hennynck, Heine, from Henry; Cleys, Clauwes, Claues, Claes, Cleys, Clawes, and numerous other hypocoristics of Nicholas; Ludike and Ludeke, from Louis; and Wynyke, a diminutive of any of various names beginning with wini ‘friend’. Other less common names also give rise to hypocoristics, such as Bastian, from Sebastian; Brosius, from Ambrose; and Aßmuß from Erasmus.

So much for the ordinary, every day nicknames, your Estonian Tom, Dick, and Harry, if you will. Let’s explore some of the unusual ones!

  • Nicknames of Constantine: Coest, Kosst.
  • Nicknames of Habakukk: Habbo, Köke, Kock.
  • Nickname of Hubert: Hoppe.
  • Nicknames of Jacob: Jaeck, Jack, Jacho, Kowpy, koup.
  • Nickname of Joachim: Jachi.
  • Nicknames of Joseph: Jessa, Seppo.

One thing of note is that many of these unusual hypocoristics derive from Biblical names.

We’ll close by looking at one name which, across Europe, is one of the most prolific spawner of nicknames: Theodoric. In Estonia alone, the name rivals John in popularity, and we have seventeen different nickname forms — most of which are diminutives of hypocoristics: Tideke, Tideken, Tideman, Tidike, Tijdeke, Tijdeman, Tijdike, Tile, Tous, Tydedeynk, Tydek, Tydeke, Tydeken, Tydeman, Tydike, Tydiken, Tyman.

This will not be the last time we see Theodoric when exploring this month’s topic!


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You want nicknames? We got nicknames!

In dictionary entries, we sort our citations by modern day country borders (because trying to ascertain which country certain towns were in at which period is quite a bit of work — especially when ‘country’ isn’t a viable geographic category for much of the Middle Ages!). One particularly interesting aspect of the multi-cultural/cross-geographic data that we have is that it allows us to trace certain patterns or trends across these boundaries, and one such pattern is the prolificness (or not) of diminutives. We touched on this in the previous post when we briefly commented on the percentage of names that are diminutives in any given era. In this post, we thought we’d explore this further, with some stats and some bar graphs; it’s been too long since we’ve had a nice graph!

Table of diminutive numbers and percentages

Country No. of dims. No. of non-dims. Percentage
Austria 0 60 0%
Brabant 18 191 8.6%
Czech Republic 241 912 18.5%
England 554 15457 3.4%
Estonia 612 905 40.3%
Finland 58 205 22%
France 1181 11744 9.1%
Germany 153 3973 3.7%
Iceland 0 63 0%
Ireland 12 294 3.9%
Italy 525 2387 18%
Latvia 201 1079 15.7%
Malta 0 10 0%
The Netherlands 36 862 4%
Norway 0 3 0%
Poland 21 123 14.5%
Portugal 2 384 .5%
Scotland 47 824 5.3%
Spain 62 1556 3.8%
Sweden 27 589 4.3%
Switzerland 102 543 15.8%
Ukraine 6 82 6.8%
Wales 46 391 10.5%

In some contexts, it is clear that we don’t have enough data to draw any sort of robust conclusions — Austria, Iceland, Malta, Norway, the Ukraine. But omitting these from discussion (and also omitting England, second from the bottom, and France, no. 8, since their much larger numbers make the graph inelegant), we are left with an interesting picture of the relative percentages of nicknames and diminutives across different geographical areas:

The four outstanding areas are Estonia, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Italy. We’ve already discussed the nicknames in Estonia and the Czech Republic when we covered German and Slavic forms; so next up, we will explore diminutive and nicknames forms in Finland and Italy.


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Nicknames: Slavic diminutives

What is fascinating about diminutive suffixes is how you can trace linguistic contact and language relationships through diminutive forms. We saw that in our previous post, with the similarity between German and Dutch diminutives, and we will see it again when we look at the French diminutives -el and -in. In this post, we look at Slavic diminutives — suffixes used in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Czech Republic — which share a clear relationship with Low German -ke(n). We concentrate on the two most common suffix types: -ko and -ek for men and -ka and -ek(a) for women.

As with the German suffixes, these show up in Latin contexts at least as early as the 13th C. [1,2] But unlike some of the German diminutive forms, which for the most part were rarer than the root names, Slavic diminutives often eclipsed the root name in popularity — for example, in the Czech Republic, diminutive forms of Judith far outstrip the full form.

In what is now modern-day Czech Republic, the suffix -ka was often spelled -ca (especially in Latin contexts where k was often avoided) or with an added sibilant, either before or after the \k\, resulting in -zca, -zka, -kza, etc. Examples of this include Anka (from Anne) and Elsca, Elzca, and Elzka (from Elizabeth). Often, this suffix was added not to the full form of the name, but to a hypocoristic from — as in the forms of Elizabeth just noted. In particular, native Slavic names were often truncated before the diminutive suffix was added, as we see in the names Sdynka, Zdincza, Zdinka (from Zdeslava) and Budka, Budcza (from Budislava). As a result, it can be often difficult to identify what the root name is, which is the case with many of the masculine examples we currently have. Given their linguistic and geographic context, masculine names such as Boczko, Czenko, Daszko, Luczko, Parcko, Raczko, Steczko, and Wyrsko are almost all certainly diminutives, though as of yet we haven’t yet confidently identified the root names.

Our data from Poland, at this point, is still relatively limited, but even amongst the handful of diminutive forms that we have, we can see the influence of the Slavic construction in forms such as Ludeko (from Louis), another example of which we find in Lübeck a few years later. What we tend to see more in our limited Polish data is similarity with German suffixes, in particular one which we didn’t discuss in our previous post: -el. When we discuss German masculine diminutive suffixes, we’ll return to this!

Finally, let’s look at Ukraine. As with Poland, our data from the Ukraine is still quite limited, and yet, even amongst that limited data we have a surprisingly large percentage of diminutive forms (making up nearly 7%!) [3]. We see both the -(z)ko and -ek suffixes in this data, as witnessed by Iaczko (from Jacob), Iwanko (from John), and Muszyk (root name not yet identified), on the masculine side, and Marsucha (from Mary) on the feminine side.

One must be leery of drawing any strong conclusions from the limited data that we’ve gathered so far. Nevertheless, even in this small data set we have ample illustration of the variety of ways in which diminutives could be formed, and evidence of their popularity.


[1] Artsikhovskii, A. V., et al. Novgorodskie gramoty na bereste, Vols I-VII. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1953-78, no. 348.

[2] Moroshkin, Mikhail. Slavianskii imenoslov ili sobranie slavianskikh lichnykh imen. Saint Petersburg: n.p., 1867, p. 124.

[3] Compare that with, say, England or Spain, where diminutives make up 3%, or Sweden, where it is 4%.


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Nicknames: Feminine diminutive suffixes in medieval German

In today’s post, we take a look at an area which has an amazing diversity of diminutive suffixes used in women’s names: medieval Germanic dialects (including Dutch ones from the Low Countries, because of their close kinship with Low German suffixes).

In terms of the vocabulary that we introduced in our previous post, German feminine nicknames were, for the most part, formed by adding such diminutive suffixes, rather than creating a hypocoristic form by truncating it (there are a few exceptions, such as Els, from Elizabeth, and Greta from Margaret.) These diminutive suffixes varied by dialect and by region, making it possible to identify, sometimes with a high level precision, where a name comes from on the basis of the type of suffix that it uses. So let’s start by taking a look at the distribution of the various dialects, and their divisions into Low German, Middle (Central) German, and High (Upper) German:


Starting in the south, High German dialects are typified by diminutives formed from -lin, including variants such as Swiss -li and Bavarian -el or -l. Examples of names formed with this diminutive suffix include Aͤnnlin, Aͤnlin, Aͤndlin, and Bridlin, Elsslin, and Bettlin, diminutives of Anne, Brid (Bridget), and Elizabeth (respectively) found in Rottweil, Baden-Württemberg, in 1441. [1] From the same source, we also have Keterlin, Kaͤtherlin, Kaͤterlin, diminutives of Katherine. These particular examples, from Rottweil, are likely examples of -lin added to a hypocoristic of Katherine, but other examples, from further south and east, may involve the Bavarian or Austrian diminutive -erl plus -lin.

-lin and -lyn are typical of Middle High German; it wasn’t until the shift into Early New High German that the spelling -lein starts to appear, such as Marlein (from Mary), Grethlein (from Margaret), Ketherlein (from Katherine), and Elßlein (from Elizabeth), all found in Kulmbach in 1495. [3]

People are often surprised to find nicknames in medieval records, since there can be a misconception that the only things that made it into medieval documents were the formal forms of names. Certainly it is the case that there were probably many more nicknames in use than the documentary evidence displays. The examples we have in written records were almost certainly predated by spoken examples, perhaps by centuries. But nicknames were not wholly excluded from formal documents: If this was the form of the name that the person was known by, this would’ve been the form used to refer to him in a record. As it turns out, the suffix -lin or -lyn are relatively old: German masculine examples can be found in Latinized contexts from the 13th C, including Choncelinus 1280 and Cunzelin 1294 (from Conrad), Reinboldelinus 1286 (from Reinbald), and Volfelinus c. 1236 (from Wolf). [2] But we’ll say more about masculine nicknames in another post! Another diminutive suffix whose use can be dated to at least the 13th C is -i, in the feminine names Beli 1267 and Jutzci 1295. [2]

In Low German, -ke(n) and its derivative are typical, found also in the Low Countries, and connected to Slavic -ka. (Diminutives of -ke also stretch further north, being found in Scandinavia.) While we have more examples of this suffix used with men’s names than women’s names, this is primarily an artifact of our data (containing more men’s names than women’s), rather than reflecting anything about the reality of the use of the suffix by women. Examples of this from across the Low German-speaking spectrum include An(n)eke (from Anne), found in Estonia and Latvia, Heilka, a diminutive of some name beginning with Old High German heil, hele ‘whole’ found in the mid 12th C, and Kattryneke, also found in Latvia. In the Low Countries, we can see examples such as Saerken (from Sara), Aelken (from Alice), Neelken (from Cornelia) [4], Claerken (from Clara), Grietken (from Margaret), Mariken (from Mary), Jacomynken (a double diminutive from Jacomine, a variant of Jacoba via the form Jacoma) [5] as well as Tanneken (from Anne), a variant which we just found an example of amongst the Dutch Protestant community in London in the 16th C.

In between these, -chen is characteristic of Middle German dialects, and it is a cousin of another Dutch diminutive, -ge(n). Most of our examples of this, so far, come from the Low Countries, with names like Claertgen (from Clara), Aeltgen (from Alice), Grietgen (from Margaret), Ariaentgen and Adriaentgen (from Adriana), and Maritgen, Marijtgen, and Marrijtgen from (from Mary) [6].


[1] Mack, Eugen, Das Rottweiler Steuerbuch von 1441. Königsfestgabe des Rottweiler Geschichts und Altertumsvereins unter der Schirmherrschaft Seiner Majestät König Wilhelms II von Württemberg. (Tübingen, H. Laupp, 1917.), pp. 126-151

[2] Socin, Adolf, Mittelhochdeutsches Namenbuch. Nach oberrheinischen Quellen des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts (Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1903; Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1966), pp. 10, 31, 48-9, 52-3, 63, 174.

[3] Wilhelm Lederer, Kulmbacher Einwohner 1495, in: Geschichte am Obermain Band 3, Jahresgabe 1965/66, Lichtenfels, S. 71-81.

[4] Daniel van der Meulen, Brieven en Andere Bescheiden Betreffende Daniel Van der Meulen, 1584-1600: Deel 1, Augustus 1584-September 1585, (‘s-Gravenhage : M. Nijhoff, 1986-)

[5] Fonds Plaiser, Antwerpsch Archievenblad.

[6] van de Spiegel, Ronald & Frans van Rooijen, “Kohieren van Het Weekgeld 1573” (http://www.interphrase.nl/frans/FransWeb/Archivalia/WEEKGE.INL.htm)


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Nicknames: Some general remarks

The category “nicknames” covers a multitude of types of names, so in this post we’ll outline the scope of this month’s topic and define some terminology.

Nicknames can either be given names — for example, Johnny as a nickname for John — or descriptives added to given names, such as the Red or English or Small. Since the DMNES is a dictionary of given names, we’ll be focusing on nicknames of the former type.

When discussing nicknames of given names, a number of different phrases are used more or less equivalently — nickname, ekename, diminutive, pet name, pet form, hypocoristic, etc. For the most part, there isn’t anything to be gained by rigorously separating, but we will find use of one distinction: A hypocoristic is a nickname formed by truncating or reducing the radiconym (the root name) while a diminutive is one that augments the radiconym (which may itself be a hypocoristic!) with one or more diminutive suffices. Taking our example of Johnny above, it would be classified as a diminutive, by adding the diminutive suffix -i to the radiconym John. As another example, Gwen is a hypocoristic of Gwendolyn (as well as of other names), while Gwennie is a diminutive of that.

One thing to note immediately is that when an abstract diminutive suffix is added to a name, both it and the root name itself may change in spelling — as happens when in English we get Johnny and Gwennie instead of Johni and Gweni. But how and when this happens is very much language-specific: For if we were speaking of German rather than English, Gweni is exactly the way that diminutive of Gwen is spelled.

Another thing to note is that whether a nickname is a hypocoristic or a diminutive will affect the chances we have of confidently identifying the root name. When a nickname is formed by truncating a larger name, it’s quite common for the discriminatory part of the name to be lost. For example, Bella can be a hypocoristic of any of various names — Isabella, Jacobella, Riobella, or even Sibyl. On the other hand, when a nickname is formed by adding to or augmenting another name, the original name is retained and so is easy to identify.

Different cultures will have different patterns of proportions of hypocoristics vs. diminutives, and they will also have different types of diminutive suffices that they use. We will look at all of these aspects when we investigate nicknames, culture by culture!


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Nicknames: The monthly topic for December

Welcome to another month! Our monthly topic for December is nicknames, diminutives, hypocoristics, pet forms, whatever you want to call them. One of our earliest posts on the blog that exploited our then-nascent data collection was on diminutive forms in 16th C England, and this month we would like to build on this. We’ll look at questions such as:

  • In what cultures can diminutive forms be found?
  • In what time periods can diminutive forms be found?
  • How are diminutives formed in different languages?
  • Is there any difference between how women’s and men’s diminutives are formed?

There is a pervasive view that the only names that made it into record in the Middle Ages were formal, legal names. One of the goals of this month’s choice of topic is to demonstrate that this is definitely not the case!

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Diminutive forms in 16th C England

A remark in this post on an onomastics blog that I follow, that

it seems like people in the past were a lot less nickname-happy than people today. I’d be shocked to hear of, say, a Renaissance Amelia who went by Amy, or a 19th century pioneer Joshua who went by Josh

got me thinking. The comment surprised me because in the data I’ve worked with over the last decade and a half has included quite a few marriage and baptismal records from late 16th C English parish registers, and I’ve come across quite a few diminutive forms. I decided to cull data from an albeit very small data set (the data which is currently in the Dictionary‘s database, which is a very small excerpt of the data I’ve collected over the years), and do a bit of analysis.

Diminutive forms of names can mostly be classified into two types: Those where the radiconym was also in use, and those where it wasn’t. In the later case, by the 16th C, it may not really make sense to speak of those names being diminutives, if there no longer is, and hasn’t been for a long time, a name that they are a diminutive of.

In this category, we can class such names as Ursula, Wilmot, and Thomasine and their (very numerous) variants. These names derive from Ursa, Willelma/Williama and Thomasse/Thomasa, respectively, but these forms have historically been vanishingly rare in English. (Thomasse appears in French, Guillerma and variants in Spanish, and Ursa in Italian.) A masculine witness to this is Lancelot, and its variants; these are etymologically diminutives of Lance, but the popularity of the Arthurian character meant that the double diminutive form was far more popular than the radiconym.

Of the names where the radiconym was still in common currency, we can further divide the examples into those where the diminutive form is roughly as common as its root, and those where the nickname is substantially less common. In the former category are names such as Alison, Marian, and Isabel. The latter category are the ones that I believe the poster quoted above would find most surprising:

  • Annie 1586, 1597 (from Anne)
  • Beaton 1581 (from Beatrice)
  • Davy 1599 (from David)
  • Emot, Emet 1418, Emote 1580 (from Emma)
  • Ebbot 1597, Ebbet 1597 (from Elizabeth, or possibly Isabel)
  • Eliza 1567, 1581, 1582, 1584, 1594, 1595 (from Elizabeth)
  • Elineta 1563 (from Ellen, or possibly Eleanor)
  • Kate 1596 (from Katherine)
  • Nancy 1583 (from Anne)
  • Sybbie 1573 (from Sybil)

And this is only looking at examples which have 16th C citations; I omitted a number of 15th C examples.

This is but a small data set, and thus no strong conclusions should be drawn from it. But I think it’s certainly clear that nicknames were used in the Renaissance, even in as official contexts as marriage and birth records.


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