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!