Words index  Vivian Cook

Nicknames Rule!

Kenneth Livingstone? Kenny Livingstone? Ken Livingstone? Elizabeth Taylor? Liz Taylor? Lizzie Taylor? What’s the difference?

Making a nickname by shortening the first name is easy enough – Peter to Pete, Gabriel to Gabe or Gay, Gillian to Gill, Andrew to Andy or Drew, depending where you come from. Adding -ie or -y, as in Nicky, Bobbie or Frankie, is another way of creating a nickname. In many languages the ‘high’ ‘i’ vowel by itself suggest smallness, as in teeny or wee beastie, compared to the ‘low’ vowels that suggest bigness in huge and large. (See page 000). While adding an ‘i’ sound to someone’s name sounds familiar and friendly, it also hints that they are small and childish. Rightly is -ie/-y called the diminutive ending – it cuts you down to size.

In 1996 an advertising campaign used the same slogan in several newspapers with a change of name. In the Sun it read What can I get for Mikey?, in the Mail What can I get for Lucy?, in the Guardian What can I get for Vicky? and in the Independent What can I get for Deirdre? While there was comment on the appropriacy of the names for the readership of the different papers, no-one pointed out that they all ended in -ie/-y, with the exception of Deirdre and even that has a final ‘i’ sound in speech. To avoid these childish overtones of -ie/-y, you can adopt an ‘i’ spelling as in Nicki or Ricki. Indeed the team responsible for an Australian TV series claimed to be Mucci, Yucci and Succi.

Shortening someone’s name or adding -ie/-y gives away your attitude to them: Nick/Nicky, Ed/Eddie, Alf/Alfie. Short forms like Tom sound slightly less condescending than -ie/-y forms like Tommy. In a backlash against -ie/-y, some nicknames have ‘y’-less endings, such as Johnno for Johnny, Anders for Andrew, Debs for Debbie or Kell for Kelly.

People change their nickname to suit their status. Jazz altoist Johnny Dankworth became respectable Sir John Dankworth. The trend towards the full name has recently been partly reversed, as with Bill Clinton, though Billy Clinton still seems unlikely. Even the ‘ie/y’ forms have become more used. While in the 1950s the Prime Minister was definitely Anthony Eden, in the 1980s Maggie was Prime Minister in some contexts, and the leader of ‘New’ Labour was definitely Tony.

Some shortened forms have become names in their own right: Jack seems to have an independent life of its own rather than just being a nickname for John.  Prince Harry was christened Henry. Should he become king, will he call himself King Henry or King Harry or even King Hal? While it may be fine to cry ‘God for England, Harry and St George!’ calling yourself King Harry seems a step too far. We would, however have lived  through the reigns of Queen Liz, King Chaz and King Will (Billie? Liam?) before this could happen.

Sometimes the nickname appears to have little to do with the real name – what has Jack got to do with John? A former professor at Essex university was called Arthur Spicer but used the name Sam. One of his ex-students assumed this was a general rule and wrote a textbook for English which asserted ‘In England all Arthurs are known as Sam’.

There is a widespread belief that knowing someone’s name gives you power over them – witness any novel about vampires. Using the first name is one signal of power, whether from teacher to pupil or boss to secretary, or echoed in news-papers’ use of first names and nicknames for women victims of crimes – Jackie’s body found. A mild form of this is the power to give people nicknames. Shortening the name, Susan to Sue, shows familiarity; adding an ie/y shows an additional layer of condescension, Susan to Susie.

The Mateyness Scale

Tick politicians on the scale of mateyness according to whether you have heard them referred to by the possible nicknames on the list.          

 

Distant

Fairly Friendly

Friendly 

Salmond

Alexander

Alex

Al 

Blair

Anthony

Tony

Tone

Cameron

David 

Dave

Davey

Rice

Condoleezza

Condi

Connie

Bush

George W

Dublja

Georgie

Milliband

David

Dave

Davey

Johnson

Boris

Bore

Borry

Sarkosy

Nicolas

Nick

Nicky

Thatcher

Margaret

Maggie

Mags

Churchill

Winston

Winnie

Win