What exactly is a nickname?
Oxford says it’s “a name added or substituted for the proper name of a person, place, etc., usually in ridicule or pleasantry; a familiar form of a Christian name.”
According to the last part of this definition, many people, perhaps most, carry nicknames. This nickname isn’t necessarily much different from the given name. Any shortened or altered form of a name is nickname.
We all know someone called Joe or Greg or Pete. These are simple abbreviations, their relationship to the original names easily detected.
Sometimes, the new name is altered leaving scant resemblance between it and the original name. Maggie or Peggy for Margaret, Ted for Theodore, and Hank for Henry are examples.
We seldom consider Jim, or Evvy, or Beth to be nicknames. If we bother to pin any label on such a name, we probably call it a pet name.
Pet name (pet-name) is dated to 1829 and is defined as, “expressing fondness.” But, there’s a still earlier term, hypocorism (1796), “a name of endearment; a pet name.” Pet names and hypocorisms both fall under the category of nicknames.
Hypocorisms are everywhere. No need to look for them. They’re found in every family, classroom, and workplace. Here are some from my own family: Tim, Lil, Nellie, Katie, Kathy, Millie, Barney, Lea and Stan.
Some personal nicknames, usually bestowed by non-family members, refer to physical or personality traits: Baldy, Shorty, Lefty, Red, Ginger, Smiley, Freckles, and so on.
Quite a few nicknames have become associated with specific surnames: Nobby Clark, Smitty Smith, Chalky White, Spider Webb, Sandy Shore, Dusty Miller or Dusty Rhodes. I don’t know how common such nicknames are today, but I once knew a Dusty Miller. As well, my high school history teacher was surnamed Clark. He was known to all of us as Nobby.
Nicknames can also arise via distortion of a name. Someone named Friesen might be called Freezing or Chilly. Generations of Glenlawn Collegiate students referred to one-time principal, Walter Yarwood, as Mr. Woodyard.
Several given names have standard nicknames associated with them. So, Chuck comes from Charlie; Frank is derived from Francis; and Jack grows out of John.
Nicknames are bestowed informally. When we get one, there’s no ceremony attached as when a baby is christened or a ship is launched.
In most countries, according to law, newborns must be officially registered. Such registrations require the baby’s name. Naturally, the full version of the name is used at this time — Christine rather than Chrissie; Gerald rather than Gerry.
No legal requirement affects nicknames. You can dub your Juliette Julie, or call your Daniel Danny Boy, when and if you feel like it.
It’s only natural that some people dislike their nicknames. I knew a David nicknamed Daisy. He hated that, and it’s likely that Winston Churchill would have preferred not to be known as Winnie.
Here’s what English journalist and essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) had to say about the subject of nicknames: “A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man.”