by Linda Rosenkrantz
A Berry recently posted a request for a blog explaining the origins of some of the common nicknames—more properly diminutives or pet forms– for classic names that seem to be miles apart. And of course we aim to please, so…..
There is a certain logic to it all, as well as some whimsy. The simplest road to a pet form is, obviously, by shortening it to its first one or two syllables, as in Di for Diana, Ben for Benjamin, Archie for Archibald and Eliza for Elizabeth. Occasionally, a middle syllable will do the job, leading to Liz for Elizabeth and Xan for Alexander. (Where this gets a little tricky is when the pronunciation of the base name has changed over the years—Richard seems to have been often pronounced Rickard at one time, resulting in the nickname Rick and his rhyming cousin Dick, with Dick then becoming so popular that the phrase “every Tom, Dick and Harry” became a euphemism for Everyman. Or a sprinkling of the letters in the name could lead, say, from Dorothy to Dot.
February 17th is the birthdate of Andrew Barton Paterson, affectionately known as “Banjo” Paterson. He was named Andrew after his Scottish-born father, and his middle name Barton was a family name from his mother’s side; he was related to Edmund Barton, who would later become Australia’s first prime minister. Because he and his dad had the same name, Paterson went by his middle name, and was always known as Barty to his friends and family.
Paterson lived with his grandmother while he was attending the prestigious Sydney Grammar School, and she encouraged in him a love of poetry. He was 21 when he first began submitting poems to The Bulletin, under the pseudonym of “The Banjo” (sometimes shortened to a simple “B”). Full of fierce nationalism and a desire for a fairer society, he had some aspirations to write fiery polemic, and had even written a political pamphlet. However, The Bulletin had other ideas.
In the late nineteenth century, there was a movement towards the British colonies of Australia becoming one country, a feeling that Australia should be a united nation, and Australians a united people. In the effort to provide Australia with a unifying mythology that would instill nationalistic pride, it seemed that the Australian bush and outback would be the symbol to draw everyone together.
Brits love diminutives. We use them, often automatically, to shorten names in a familiar way, and they have been essential for centuries as a way of distinguishing individuals with the same name. We love them so much, many of them have now been elevated into full-name status, and happily litter the Top 100.
The most common are two-syllable, ie/y-endings we know and love well; Isabelles are Izzy, Olivers are Ollie, Katherines are Katies and Fredericks are Freddies. But more and more, parents are looking to a more brisk and quirky style of diminutive. Edwards are often Ned, rather than Eddy; several Henrys are Hal, and Christophers are the striking Kit rather than Chris.
With this niche trend in mind, here is a rundown of some one-syllable diminutives that have become overlooked since they were developed in the Middle Ages. Several of them, perhaps surprisingly, were unisex.
In the 16th century Bess was a popular nickname for Elizabeth. You could almost say that it was the diminutive for the name, as the most famous bearer, Elizabeth I, was known fondly as “Good Queen Bess“. It began to lose favour in the 18th century, but was revived as Bessie in the 19th. In some instances, Bess was also used as a diminutive for Beatrice.
Usually, when baby names are related, the resemblance is pretty obvious. For example, Christopher’s foreign versions include Christophe and Christos and his short form is Chris; Patricia is otherwise known as Patrizia or Patrice, Pat or Patty.
This can come in handy if you’re looking for an invisible (to non-nerds) or at least indirect route to honoring a namesake. Ways you can do this include finding an interesting but accessible international variation, or an unexpected nickname that can be used on its own, or a mythological, biblical, or other name switch, or dual identity.
Definitely! we agreed. At least it’s one of them!
What’s the cutest nickname you’ve ever heard? Maybe it’s one you came up with on your own, maybe it was invented by an older sibling or by your child himself. It might have been by design, or it might have come about by accident.