This Is Why Some Nicknames Make No Sense

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
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Nicknames are weird. Some of them make sense – say, Jack as a nickname for Jackson – but when Jack is a nickname for John, it leaves us scratching our heads, in a whirl of WTF-ness.

I encountered this exact phenomenon while researching my family tree. On one genealogy website, my third-great-grandmother was listed as Margaret Galloway, but others said Peggy. Was this two different people or what? Did someone have their information wrong?

As it turns out, Peggy is a common nickname for Margaret, a fact I wish I’d known before I wasted a bunch of time on unnecessary confusion. But, wait a minute…Peggy and Margaret aren’t even similar. How did these nicknames ever come up in the first place, let alone become a thing?

The word “nickname” itself is an example of how a few letters can morph into something else entirely. (Similar to the way some of my relatives say “Chester drawers” instead of “chest of drawers,” but I digress.) The Old English word “eaca,” meaning “increase,” turned into the word “ekename” – so basically, “extra name.” From there, “an ekename” turned into “a nekename” and, aside from the spelling we know today, the rest is history.

This same thing happened to the name Anne, and its seemingly-unrelated nickname Nancy. And to Edward becoming Ned, and Helen becoming Nellie.

Just as we have trends today, so did people from Medieval times – and one of those was to add “mine” as an endearment before a first name, i.e., “Mine Ed.” If you say it out loud, it becomes much more apparent how one name can turn into another. Mine Ed = my Ned. Mine Anne = my Nan. Pile another, later trend on top of that – the addition of an “-ie” or “-ee” sound on the end of names – and voila. Nancy. Same with Helen: mine Hel, my Nell, my Nellie.

In fact, trends are the reason behind most of these nicknames. In an era where there just weren’t that many names to choose from, people got creative with their nicknaming.

Then, of course, other languages and cultures have come into play. Sometimes Daisy is a nickname for Margaret, a complete puzzle until you consider that daisy in French is “marguerite.” And those who use Sasha as a diminutive of Alexander or Alexandra seem off their rockers, if you don’t know that Sasha is simply the Russian form of the name.

No one can accurately predict how our own contemporary languages, trends, and cultural influences will shape the names of the future. Probably 150 years from now, maybe in a galaxy far, far away, someone will scratch their head (eh, space helmet?) and say, “I wonder how people got the nickname ZIA40X from Paizleigh?”

Need name inspiration? Check out the ever-evolving Scary Mommy baby name database!

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