• nickname •
nik-naym • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A shortened and/or modified form of a name, as Bill and Willy are nicknames for William, and Molly and Maresy are nicknames for Mary. 2. A descriptive name added to or replacing a formal name, as Lefty was the nickname of the left-handed country singer William Frizzell, Frank Sinatra was called The Chairman, and Elvis Presley, The King.
Notes: Nickname is such a commonplace word, what could be said about it that would hold any interest? Well, aside from its origin (for which see below), a lot of current formal names started out as nicknames. Besides Molly, originally a nickname for Mary, Betty started out in life as a nickname for Elizabeth. Greta was once the nickname for Margaret, not to mention Meg and Peg. Hal originated as a nickname for Henry but today replaces Harold more often. Jack is still a nickname for John in some quarters.
In Play: Nicknames may be affectionate, like darling, honey (or just hon), and cupcake. They may be slurs, as when we call someone who wears glasses Four-Eyes or someone overweight Fatso or someone underweight Toothpick. Other nicknames reflect occupation, as calling a medic Bones or Cutter or a radio operator Sparky.
Word History: In order to get where it is today, nickname had to undergo two common linguistic changes: reanalysis and folk etymology. Around the middle of the 15th century, people began reanalyzing an ekename as a nekename. The word originally implied an additional name, since eke meant an increase or addition. (Today it has quite a different meaning.) It came from an earlier root aug- which produced Latin augere "to increase, enrich", at the root of augmentum, which English borrowed as augment. Getting back to nekename, though, this word next underwent our old friend folk etymology, which converted neke into a more recognizable word nick. (I will avoid the nickname "Pat" and offer our gratitude to Patricia Jeffery for suggesting today's very Good Word.)