Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Nicknames and Sobriquets

I was rather taken aback at the response to our recent Good Word nickname. A reader by the rather silky name of Monroe Thomas Clewis admitted, “I have always enjoyed silkier sobriquet as a synonym for the more leathery nickname.”

I must admit material sympathy for Mr. Clewis’s preference. I do think that we have room for both these terms, though. I wouldn’t want to stretch the patience of sobriquet to names like Knucklehead, Stinky, Pusslegut, or even Buck, for that matter. So, I would say that there are both nicknames and sobriquets in this world, and may never the twain collide.

A Canadian reader, Davi McGrew, after buttering me up with an ostensible confession of pleasure in the daily Good Word, tried to tauten my definition of nickname in this way: “It seems to me that Pat, etc. should more properly be acknowledged as diminutives rather than nicknames…of which I have had several myself. If the point was to ‘add something to, or enrich’ [Great approach: pinning me down with a direct quote–DG] then a bald shortening seems besides the point.”

I’m one of the few US-ers who give Canada credit for harboring several clever people, so I am not at all surprised at Davi’s comment—nor his sly argumentational tactics. I fully appreciate them, in fact, even though they leave me unconvinced. Pat as a nickname for Patrick or Patricia could be a “clipping”, i.e. a word the majority of which has been clipped, e.g. Doc for doctor, rep for representative.

I don’t think, though, that I could call it a diminutive, a word that indicates a smaller version, as a napkin was once though to be a smaller version of an apron. English doesn’t sport diminutives any more, just the vestiges of them in words on -kin and a few borrowings from French on -ette, as when the former cigarette was a smaller version of the still current cigar.

Nicknames do sometimes come with diminutives. Billy is more likely applied to a small Bill than a large one; Annie sounds more girlish to me than Anne. In fact, we have lots of these in English: Bobby, Jacky, Johnny. But this is not a consistency in the language. Molly is something quite different from a Moll and I wouldn’t take Leslie all the way down to Lessie.

Anyway, these words do show us how we can find some of the most uncommon behavior in the commonest of our speech habits.

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