Why Are Certain Alternate Names Called Nicknames?

Carla T. asks: When someone has an alternate name than their legal one that they go by, why is it called a “nick”name?

language2A form of nickname has been around since the early 14th century- eke name, literally meaning “an additional name.”

Eke is an even older word, dating back to about 1200 meaning “to increase.” (Eke also meant “to lengthen,” and it was this meaning that eventually became the meaning of to eke out or make just enough.)

The first documented instance of “eke name” comes from the 1303 Middle English devotional Handlyng Synne, by Robert Manning of Brunne.  In it, he states on line 1531 to 1534, “As moche þan he ys to blame Þat ȝeueþ a man a vyle ekename Ȝyf hys ryȝt name be withdrawe Gostlychë…”

So how did we get “nickname” from “ekename”?  This is one of the numerous examples of metanalysis or rebracketing. In this case, “an ekename” became “a nekename” and ultimately, today, “a nickname.”

We can see this transformation starting in the 1440 work Promptorium Parvulorum (“Storehouse for Children,” the first English to Latin dictionary) by Geoffrey the Grammarian of England, where it states “Neke name, or eke name, agnomen.” Similarly, the 1483 English to Latin dictionary Catholicon Anglicum has an entry: “An Ekname, agnomen.”

We see another incarnation of this in Sir Thomas More’s Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer published in 1532:

I shoulde here call Tindall by another name:‥it were no nyck name at all and yet would there some then say that it were not honest so to do; and this will some such folk say as in the villainous words of his spoken by this blessed sacrament will find no fault at all.  But meseemeth surely that at the first hearing of such a shameful word spoken by the mouth of such a shameless heretic by this holy sacrament of Christ, the whole Christian company present should not be able to contain themselves from calling him “knave” all with one voice at once.

Fast-forwarding a bit to the 17th century, we find several instances of the more modern “nick-” spelling, such as in the 1617 Itinerary by Fynes Moryson, where it states, “James Fitz-thomas‥was by a nicke-name called the Suggon Earle…”

Within a century of this, “nick-name,” “nick name,” and “nickname” became relatively commonly used in place of older variants and the original “eke name,” with the latter being phased out completely.

A similar example of this type of rebracketing can be seen in how we got “another” (and, sometimes “nother” in such phrases as “a whole nother”) from “an other.” Or going the other way, how we got “apron” from the original “napron” (“a napron” being rebracketed to “an apron”) and “umpire” from “noumpere” (“a noumpere” being rebracketed to “an oumpere”).

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Bonus Facts:

  • Moniker, first appeared in print in 1849, and was “said to be originally a hobo term” of uncertain origins. Some trace the word’s beginnings to the habit of English tramps to refer to themselves as part of the “monkery,” that is, monks who routinely took new names when they took their vows.
  • It will come as no surprise that sobriquet was originally French, where it had the same spelling since the 1400s. While in English it has been a synonym for nickname since about 1640, in Middle French it meant “a jest” and also “a chuck under the chin.”
  • Likewise, nom de guerre, also meaning a second name, (but literally “war name”) is also of French origin, and has been used in English since the 1670s. However, the more common English phrase nom de plume, literally meaning “pen name,” isn’t French at all, but was adopted by British authors in the 19th century who thought that the “war” part of nom de guerre might be confusing. Some credit Emerson Bennett and his obscure 1850 novel Oliver Goldfinch for the phrase, although others have it appearing in English as early as 1823.
  • Interesting side note, the famous British poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) had at least two noms de plume (Cuddy and Gnome), as well as an actual nom de guerre (Silas Tomkyn Comberbache) from his time in the Fifteenth Light Dragoons.
  • Meaning “otherwise called,” alias has been in English use since the mid-1400s, and as an “assumed name,” since about 1600. It comes from the Latin word of the same spelling that meant “another way.”
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