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The Surprising Origins of 14 Nicknames

Close up of old English dictionary page with word nickname
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How old were you when you first learned that “Peggy” is, somewhat inexplicably, a nickname for “Margaret?” If your answer is something like, “Today. I was today years old,” don’t worry; you’re in good company. It turns out there actually is a reason “Margaret” is sometimes shortened to “Peggy,” by the way—and what’s more, it’s far from the only nickname with a surprising origin story out there.

Much the same way languages evolve, so, too, do names. Sometimes, they’re shortened; sometimes, they’re lengthened; and sometimes, one version gives way to another. Heck, some modern first names were once reserved solely as nicknames—but over time, they grew to be given names in their own right.

How a nickname gets from point A to point B isn’t always straightforward, however. Here’s where 14 particularly puzzling nicknames from—and why they actually make a whole lot of sense when you stop to think about it.

Peggy

Marvel's Agent Carter
Marvel

Short for: Margaret.

How does one get “Peggy” from “Margaret?” Via a curiously indirect method. In the Middle Ages, it was common for nicknames to arise not only from shortened or diminutive versions of what are officially called radiconyms—that is, root names—but also from other words and sounds that rhymed with those shortened or diminutive forms. According to the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources—an ongoing online project by linguists and scholars from such institutions as Durham University, University College London, Dublin City University, and Oxford University—the radiconym “Margaret” first became “Marg” in its shortened form, then “Mag” thanks to the habit of the letter r to sound only lightly in some dialects. From “Mag,” it became “Magge,” which is pronounced with two syllables, and from “Magge,” it became “Meggy.” Add in the rhyming convention at this point, and voila: You wind up at “Peggy.”

Dick

Short for: Richard.

Not unlike the Peggy-Margaret connection, “Dick” became a nickname for “Richard” during the medieval era thanks to both the shortening of its radiconym and the popularity of rhymes. As Today I Found Out notes, Richard is largely believed to derive from the Proto-Germanic name “Rikharthu,” meaning “hard ruler.” When the name made its way into English (with a few stops along the way), it became “Richeard” and then finally “Richard.” “Dick,” meanwhile, came about thanks to the shortening of “Richard” to “Ric,” followed its evolution into “Rick.” And what rhymes with “Rick?” Yep: “Dick.”

Sally

Short for: Sarah.

Sally Ride
NASA / Public domain

The Norman Conquest in 1066 played a crucial role in English history both in significant ways and in seemingly minor ones. In addition to the broad political and societal changes that occurred following the invasion, changes also began to arise linguistically. The “r” sound, for example, was newly arrived, but not easy for the existing population to pronounce. This, in turn, led to it either being dropped or swapped in many words for other, similar, easier-to-pronounce sounds, according to the niche naming website Name Nerds. In this way, the name “Sarah” dropped its “r” sound and gained an “L” sound, becoming “Sally” in its diminutive form.

Babs

Short for: Barbara.

Exactly how we got to “Babs” from “Barbara” is a little hazy, but a few possibilities exist. According to Name Nerds, “Babs,” like “Sally,” was a result of the “r” sound introduced to England following the Norman Invasion giving the locals trouble when it came to pronunciation—although in this case, the sound was simply dropped instead of swapped. It’s also worth noting that the name “Barbara” derives from the Greek βάρβαρος, or barbaros (meaning “unfamiliar” or “strange”); it’s therefore possible that “Babs” may have come from a truncation of this word, as well.

Whatever the case, in the United States, Barbara remained an enormously popular name for babies born in the early 1900s up through the latter half of the century; it was even in the top 10 every year from 1927 through 1958—more than three decades. Numerous nicknames for “Barbara” were also in use during this time, from “Babs” to “Barbie.” (Fun fact: Barbie’ s—as in, the doll’ s—full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts.)

Hank

Short for: Henry.

Here’s another one for the Weird Nickname That Came About In The Middle Ages column. Remember when we talked about how popular shortened and diminutive forms of radiconyms were at the time? One of the most common ways to make a diminutive form of any given name was to tack on the suffix “-kin” to the end of it, with “-kin” essentially meaning “little.” So, If you knew someone named Henry, you might nickname them “Henkin,” meaning “Little Henry.” From there, it’s just a proverbial hop, skip, and a jump to “Hankin,” and then from there to “Hank.”

Nancy

Short for: Anne.

Okay, so “Nancy” isn’t exactly a shortened version of “Anne”; “Nancy” has both one more letter and one more syllable than its radiconym. Despite its length, though, “Nancy” was still used initially as a pet name for “Anne.” It emerged from yet another naming trend in the medieval era: Putting “mine” before someone’s name to denote affection and familiarity. Do that with “Anne,” and you get “mine Anne” —which, of course, eventually contracted simply to “Nan.” The “-cy” likely came about as what Dave Roos at How Stuff Works calls “cute-ification” —per Roos, Nan may have been “cute-ified into Nanny, Nansy, and then Nancy.”

Chuck

Short for: Charles.

Chuck Berry
Universal Attractions (management) / Public domain

How we get “Chuck” from “Charles” is a bit of a mystery—but a few theories are floating around out there. As Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges’ Oxford Dictionary of First Names notes, “chuck” was a term of endearment during the English Renaissance; indeed, it appears as such in numerous Shakespeare plays, including Macbeth and Love’s Labour’s Lost. The use of “chuck” in this way was probably derived from the Middle English word “chukken,” meaning “to cluck” (yes, like a chicken). As such, it’s possible that “Chuck” as a nickname for “Charles” was derived from this usage.

However, an alternative explanation pegs the association between “Chuck” and “Charles” to 19th century New York gangster George Washington O’Connor, sometimes known as Chuck Connors. According to How Stuff Works, some New York newspapers accidentally printed Connors’ name upon his death in 1913 as Charles, thus connecting the two names—even though Connors’ name wasn’t actually Charles.

Polly

Short for: Mary.

Here’s another one following what should now be familiar-to-you medieval nicknaming conventions: “Mary” became “Molly,” either as a diminutive or as a result of the whole “r”-sound/”L”-sound swap that occurred following the Norman Invasion; then “Molly” became “Polly,” simply because it rhymed.

Ned

Short for: Edward, Edmund, and a handful of other Ed- names.

Does “Ned” look to you like it might have something in common with another nickname on this list? Maybe, say, “Nancy?” Bingo! You are correct. “Ned” came about via the addition of “mine” to names like “Edward,” “Edmund,” “Edgar,” “Edwin,” and various other radiconyms beginning with “Ed-” during the Middle Ages. Squash it all down a bit and “mine Edward” becomes “mine Ed,” which then magically turns into simply “Ned.” For the curious, this kind of transformation process is called “rebracketing” in linguistics.

Jack

Short for: John.

We get “Jack” from “John” in pretty much the exact same way we get “Hank” from “Henry.” In the 1892 work The Pedigree of Jack and of Various Allied Names, E. W. B. Nicholson traced the progression clearly and succinctly, according to the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources: Starting with the standard Latin nominative form of the name “John,” which is “Johannes,” we move from there to the stand Old and Middle French oblique form, “Jehan.” Then, we move from “Jehan” to “Jan,” the standard Middle Dutch form of the name. Adding the diminutive suffix “-kin” to “Jan” gives us “Jankin” —literally, “Little John” —and when you truncate “Jankin,” you get—surprise!—good old “Jack.”

Nell

Short for: Helen.

If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that there’s a common thread between all of the nicknames that begin with “N” on this list: They all come from the “mine _____” term of endearment. Just like Nancy and Ned, “Nell” emerges from the contraction commonly made of “mine Helen” during the medieval period. In addition to “mine Helen,” “Nell” (and the related nickname “Nellie”) can also emerge from “mine Eleanor” and “mine Ellen.”

Bill

Short for: William.

Of all the medieval nicknames that arise from shortening a radiconym, then creating a new name that rhymes with it, “Bill” might be the most logical: “William” has long been shortened to “Will”; then, thanks to the rhyming trend of the Middle Ages, “Will” easily becomes “Bill.”

However, there’s also a second possible explanation: According to Cleveland Kent Evans, author of The Great Big Book of Baby Names, who spoke to How Stuff Works on the subject in 2017, Irish Gaelic “will turn a ‘W’ sound into more of a ‘B’ depending on whether the word is the subject or object of a sentence” —so it’s absolutely possible that “Bill” could have arisen from “William” this way, too.

Dot

Short for: Dorothy.

Per Name Nerds, the “th” sound in the Middle Ages was pronounced as a straight-up “t” sound, much the way “th” letter combinations are pronounced in French even today. Accordingly, “Dorothy” would have been pronounced with a “t” sound at the beginning of its final syllable. Then, when you truncate the name further, you get “Dottie” or “Dotty,” which easily shortens down simply to “Dot.”

But “Dot” and “Dottie” are far from the only nicknames for “Dorothy” that came out of the medieval era; “Dodie” and “Dolly,” both of which are often used as given names on their own these days, are also derived from “Dorothy.” In the case of “Dolly,” the creation of the name may have been due to the “r”-sound/”L”-sound swap that occurred following the Norman invasion that also accounts for “Sally” and “Molly.”

Kit

Short for: Catherine and Christopher.

Like “Dot,” “Kit” —and other related nicknames, like “Kitty,” “Kate,” and “Cat” —is a result of the “th” sound once having been pronounced as a regular old “t” sound. Drop off a few syllables of either “Catherine” or “Christopher,” and voila: “Kit” appears.

During the English Renaissance, “Kit” was a particularly common nickname for “Christopher”; playwright Christopher Marlowe, for example, was well-known among his peers as “Kit.” And for the curious, yes Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington’s professional name is an homage to Marlowe: His given name is Christopher Catesby Harington, but his mother, herself a playwright, always liked the nickname “Kit” because of Christopher Marlowe, and, well… here we are.

What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out—and sometimes, they’re full of surprises!

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »