From Bing Crosby (Harry) and Bono (Paul) to A-Rod (Alex) and Tiger Woods (Eldrick), nicknames are certainly not a modern invention. And yet I was still really confused when I stumbled upon a recent record of my great great grandfather Wilfred where he was identified by his nickname, Wicky. I had assumed the nickname he would go by would be Fred, Freddy, or maybe Will but I had never considered Wicky. #wickywickywhat
It can be pretty confusing when you come across an unfamiliar nickname in your family history research, right? Maybe you doubt the evidence or wonder if there should actually be two separate people in your tree instead of one. Getting a handle of popular nicknaming conventions is a good place to start and the FamilySearch.org wiki actually has a great list of nicknames to browse here. You can even add your own if it’s not listed!
But I also became really curious about why nicknames exist in the first place and how they evolved over time.
Geeking out over “eking” out
The word nickname originated from the word eke name, its first documented use somewhere around the early 14th century, which literally means “an additional name.”
The word eke dates back even further to about 1200 and meant “to increase” and/or “to lengthen.” It was this meaning that eventually morphed into the modern usage as in “eke out” or make just enough.
“Eke name” as a term was first documented in 1303 in a Middle English poem called Handlyng Synneby Robert Manning of Brunne. The line is, “As moche þan he ys to blame Þat ȝeueþ a man a vyle ekename Ȝyf hys ryȝt name be withdrawe Gostlychë…” I attempted to translate this for you, dear reader, but I was absolutely butchering it. Basically it’s something about irrigated land and a man with a nickname…. Just go with it ok?
Anyways, by the 17th century, “eke name” slowly started to fade out of popularity as increasing use of the “nick-“ spelling grew and, within a century or so, “nick-name,” “nick name,” and “nickname” all became the predominantly used version.
Ok, but give me specifics.
The first thing to know about many of our favorite modern nicknames is that, during the Middle Ages, it was quite trendy to swap letters in someone’s name. The letter R would often be swapped for an L or a D. And this is where most of our nicknames were born.
For example, the name Richard was very popular during the 12th and 13th centuries. Because computers and transcription services did not exist, everything was written laboriously by hand and the use of shortened Rich and Rick were used to save time. And relatedly, rhyming nicknames were quite common at the time and so Rick eventually became Hick and, yes, Dick. And Rich became Hitch.
Another example is Chuck, the modern nickname for Charles. When Shakespeare was writing sonnets, “chuck” was a term of endearment and was used to express affection. The word “chuck” is an ancient variation on the word “chicken”…. And Charles in Middle English was “Chukken” so it’s likely a combination of the two.
Do you have a nickname? Drop it in the comments below!
Jenn aka Jennifer