Nickname Names: How did Henry get to Hank?

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

There’s actually a word for nicknames stemming from the last syllable of a name: ‘aphesis,’ accounting, for instance, for another of Elizabeth’s myriad pet forms—Beth, and also Bert for Albert, Herbert, Hubert et al. Rhyming and letter swapping also played a key role in the morphing of names to nicknames during the Middle Ages, a time when there was a limited supply of Christian names and the need to distinguish one Edward from another.  Robert was logically shortened to Rob, but that led to Bob, as well as the obsolete Hob, Dob and Nob. William generated not only Will but Bill—hard consonants being easier to pronounce than soft ones– and then there are Meg and Peg for Margaret and Molly, Polly and Dolly for Mary. Another pet name practice was to tack the word ‘mine’ onto the beginning of a name, which would be contracted to the letter ‘n’, as in Nan for Ann, Ned for Edward and Nell for Eleanor.

There are multiple factors behind some of the common diminutives.  The childish pronunciations by young siblings accounts for some formations. ‘R’s are notoriously difficult for babies to say and often are lisped into the letter ‘l,’ as in Sarah to Sally and Harry to Hal; ‘P’ is easier than ‘M’ and so Meg becomes, again, Peg and Molly, Polly. But an even more significant factor here is that the unfamiliar ‘r’ sound was introduced by the Normans when they invaded England in 1066 and so the Brits often dropped it when they nicknamed, as seen with Hal for Harold, Flossie for Florence, Babs for Barbara and Maggie et al for Margaret.

How about some of the less obvious transitions? — Why Hank from Henry?  According to one theory, it goes back to the early Dutch form Hendrick, nn Henk, which is a short hop to Hank.  And how did Jack connect to John?  Most likely explanation is that the Normans added the suffix kin to make their pet forms, so baby John—then pronounced Jen—became Jenkin and then Jankin, then Jackin, and finally Jack. This also explains the route from Francis to Frankin to Frank.

James to JimJames first became popular in Scotland, spread by five kings before the sixth became James I of England, where it was pronounced Jeames, explaining the rise of pet form Jem, and then Jim.

Charles to Chuck?  Easy, if you know that it derives from the English term of endearment from the Middle English Chukken, which imitates the clucking sound.

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23 Responses to “Nickname Names: How did Henry get to Hank?”

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KateMP91 Says:

October 23rd, 2013 at 10:43 pm

This post was so interesting! I appreciate all the research put into it!

jasmine.lee Says:

October 23rd, 2013 at 11:21 pm

So interesting! I always wonder how people got Polly from Margaret. On another note, the forums are down for me right now. It’s says that the link I was looking for cannot be found. :/

evergreen Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 2:38 am

So interesting, I have wondered about all of these. 🙂

Sunshine Kid Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 2:50 am

I’ve been having the same problem @jasmine.lee :/
On topic I was talking to my mum the other day about the name Kit and that it is an established nickname for names like Christopher, Christian, Katherine etc And her remark: “How do you get Kit from that?” Its really interesting finding out how these nicknames originated, especially the less obvious ones.

dindlee Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 5:20 am

This is fascinating! Awesome post! Think of all the new nicknames I can come up with now! One of the best posts I’ve read on NB!

Freddy Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 5:58 am

Some Europeanen countries such as Germany and the Netherlands use Franciscus (pronounced Fransiskus) as the full version of Francis. Maybe this is another explanation to Frank?

Lo Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 6:27 am

I have a son James who we call by his full name. I will say that my husband and I have both on rare occasion accidently called him Jim. It just so natural so substitute the easier to say short “I” vowel for the long “a”. When it happened we both thought, “So, that’s how Jim developed for James.”

maggiemary Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 6:28 am

This was a great blog post, really interesting, because while I knew a lot of them, I learned some new things too. Molly (which became Dolly and Polly) from Mary, grew from the Old English diminutive Malle (pr. Mally) though, which again supports the whole ‘r’ into ‘l’ thing.

maggiemary Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 6:29 am

I miss the forum, hope it’s back up soon. 🙁

dramagrl19 Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 7:49 am

I can’t believe the forums are down. Pam and Linda, are you aware?

LuMary Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 8:23 am

LuMary Says:
September 12th, 2013 at 8:32 am

“Linda says: “It’s just because Ned is so simple and unpretentious and—in my opinion—the best nickname for Edward.” I agree! Maybe you and Pam can do a study sometime of how certain vintage nicknames evolved. I read somewhere that Ned is a contraction of “mine Ed,” and Nollie, for Oliver, stems from “mine Ollie,” and Nabby (Abigail) from “mine Abby.” Also, I recall that because the pool of names was much smaller, some names like Mary or Elizabeth, necessitated creativity in nicknaming.”

Also, Nancy/Nan (Ann) from “mine Ann.”

Thank you for this great piece of research, Linda! I mentioned an interest in traditional or vintage nicknames in a comment posted to your Music Appreciation Names blog. Today’s writing is very helpful.

I have always felt that Namberry is the best names site, and your books are far superior to other naming books. You make historical, and other helpful insights, and I LOVE your vintage visuals. Though, many of our perceptions overlap, there is much to learn, as well. I thank you and Pam!

mommyesquire Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 8:33 am

I love this! Our second daughter is Margaret (nn Maisie – mostly because I was afraid that she would hate Maisie as an adult, alhtough now that she is almost 4, I wish we had just named her Maisie). I have always wondered how the many nicknames for Margaret evolved!

LuMary Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 9:16 am

Sunshine Kid Says:
October 24th, 2013 at 2:50 am

“I’ve been having the same problem @jasmine.lee :/
On topic I was talking to my mum the other day about the name Kit and that it is an established nickname for names like Christopher, Christian, Katherine etc And her remark: “How do you get Kit from that?” Its really interesting finding out how these nicknames originated, especially the less obvious ones.”

I can see how you get Kit and Kip from Christopher. You need a ‘K’ for a hard sound, and you skip to ‘t’ or ‘p.’ Think Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson. I prefer kit and Kip to Chris these days as Christopher or Christian diminutives.

I read Molly was the anglicized version of Mallaidh, but maybe the same diminutive derivation rule applied to Maire (Mary), ‘l’ being substituted for ‘r’ in the Gaelic.

LuMary Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 9:35 am

Hmmm. M is easier to say than P. I know that when babies begin to babble around 6 months, a precursor to language, some of the earliest sounds they make are M and P. When they are saying ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ they aren’t making an association that early between these sounds and their referent, as parents can mistakenly assume. But M is an early vocalization.

mommyesquire Says:
October 24th, 2013 at 8:33 am

“I love this! Our second daughter is Margaret (nn Maisie – mostly because I was afraid that she would hate Maisie as an adult, alhtough now that she is almost 4, I wish we had just named her Maisie). I have always wondered how the many nicknames for Margaret evolved!”

I don’t think you can go wrong with Margaret as a full name at all. It is one of my top three favorites. It has great history, and wonderful vintage diminutives: Maisie, Meg, Meggie, Maggie, Maidie, Molly, Polly, Peg, Peggy, Daisy. Daisy, I understand, comes from the French Marguerite, another name for a particular daisy. Margaret and Mary seem to use a number of diminutives interchangeably.

tori101 Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 9:46 am

Interesting read!!

mweath Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 11:31 am

My husband’s best man is Jack, and I was so confused when he wrote John on our marriage license, I even tried to tell him that wasn’t his name. Now it all makes sense!

Trillium Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 11:36 am

This was really informative. My favourite diminutives are the German “el” and “chen” meaning little. For example, Margarethe becomes Grethe becomes Gretchen, or Gretel. I believe the diminutive -lein also accomplishes this. If any German berries would like to weigh in I’d be delighted, I’m sure my understanding is shaky at best.

LuMary Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 11:38 am

Also, I read that Sadie for Sarah is speculated to be a product of the medieval English attempt at the Norman trilled ‘r.’ ‘D’ was the closest approximation. I suppose Maidie for Margaret evolved similarly, but there probably is at least one equally likely explanation, ‘l’ simply morphing into ‘d,’ since Susannah or Susan, absent an ‘r,’ was diminutized to Sudie. It is suggested Sukey to have been the result of a Germanic tongue interpretation (think Suchie; guttural ‘ch’) of Susannah.

Now Martha to Patsy? I guess P replacing M, as in Molly-Polly, Meg-Peg.

Anotherkate Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Great post!!

asiabean Says:

October 24th, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Interesting article. “m” and “p” actually occur at the same time in a child’s speech sound development so I don’t think that “p” is “easier” than “m” at all. Actually I would go as far as saying that “m” is easier than “p” since infants begin babbling using “m” and “b” sounds and first words are often “mama”.

nicarny Says:

October 25th, 2013 at 10:06 am

Great post! I love the history of names and words… so interesting! Thank you!

RainbowBright908 Says:

October 25th, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I thought I’d spend the rest of my life wondering how we get Jack from John, Peggy from Margaret, Bill from William, or Bob from Robert. Yay! No more lying awake at night pondering the thought 😉

Jennai Says:

October 26th, 2013 at 4:42 pm

The -c- can be pronounced as a -z- or a -k- in Germany. So when it comes to Francis it could be either Franzis –> Franz or Frankis –> Frank.

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