What’s in a name? Hypocorism

A rose by any other name…

I thought I’d depart from the world of literature for a change.

In my teaching of entry-level linguistics I try to explain the concept of address terms.  There are various technical terms related to these: appellatives, onomastic meaning (onomastics being the term for the academic study of names), and so on.  I’m sure there’s a word that signifies something like ‘names of characters in fiction that indicate their nature or salient feature’ – Dickens was fond of these: Gradgrind, Mr McChoakumchild in Hard Times, to name just one novel.  Can’t recall this term right now.  Do let me know in the comment field if you can enlighten me.

They are not characternyms: that’s the term for names of characters in literature in general (I think).

Which brings me to hypocorism.

A hypocoristic name is a diminutive, familiar or reduced form of the full name.  In England there’s Will, from William.

Then there are those which don’t just shorten the name, but which distort it: William becomes Bill, then lengthened to Billy; that –y ending is popular, hence Timmy, Dicky (see the next example), Jimmy and Tony);  Richard becomes Dick; Margaret becomes Meg, Maggie or more strangely, Peg – it was common for nicknames to substitute Ps for Ms.  Mary becomes Moll, then lengthens again to become Molly.  Not quite sure why Madonna became ‘Madge’…

Ann changes to Nan (from the old form ‘Mine Ann’), though that name seems to have died out of use.

Cees Nooteboom

Cees Nooteboom

In Holland Cornelis becomes Kees (or Cees, as in the writer Nooteboom, born 1933).  Maria becomes Ria (now also becoming popular in the UK).  Alexandra becomes Sanna (the name of the little girl in Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal, about which I intend blogging soon).  Ruud Gullit, the inimitable footballer (and not so imitable football manager) is derived from Rutgerus.

Donnie Darko may owe something to the Croatian hypocoristic form of the name Davorin, which is Darko.

Russian Aleksander becomes Sasha.  Natalya becomes Natasha (is that right?  Might have misremembered that one).

In Latin, diminutives often involve lengthening the name, hence Ursula means ‘little bear’ (which is ursus/ursa).  The notoriously vicious Emperor Caligula’s name is derived from ‘caligas’, the name for soldiers’ sandals.  Little Boots, if you like.

French diminutives or feminine endings also involve lengthening the masculine form.



So Nicolas becomes Nicolette, then Colette (as in the author, 1873-1954, famous for Gigi and other sex comedies considered racy at the time).  Not very pc, this tendency, for the unmarked term (which is what linguists call the culturally accepted ‘normal’ form) is invariably the masculine.  Compare English ‘usherette’ and all those other demeaning feminine linguistic terms (‘lady doctor’, ‘actress/poetess’, etc., now considered unacceptable in sensible usage).

The French also like reduplicated diminutives generally, like ‘dodo’, the child’s word for ‘dormir’ (sleep, or bedtime), as well as hypocoristically, as in Didi, etc. (and, I suppose, Gigi).

German Ignatz used to be reduced to Nazi (which was used by Hitler’s opponents as a term of abuse, signifying they were all country bumkins, for that was a popular name in provincial, rural Catholic Germany).  Heinrich becomes Heinz (so the beans are little Heinrichs).

Polish Tadesz becomes Tadzio – known to me best as the name of the beautiful boy in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  

Numerous appellations of the Virgin are common for girls’ names in Spain; one of my favourites is a person I used to know: Sole, from Soledad – solitude.  Inma is from Inmaculada – the immaculate conception (hence the once-popular Irish girls’ name, Concepta, an early character in the soap ‘Coronation Street’).

Mononyms are names for people known only by one element, like Bono.  Anthroponyms are places named after people (like Constantinople; or Disneyland).  Toponyms are place-names in general; topanthroponyms are personal names derived from places, hence Chelsea Clinton or Paris Hilton.

Endonyms are the names of places as used by the natives of those places, so Köln is what we call Cologne.  Similarly London is the English endonym; French people would call it Londres.  Paris Hilton would not change.  Unfortunately.

Exonyms are what we call these outsider names for endonyms.

Retronyms are fun; these are terms which have had to become modified, usually as compound nouns, as a consequence of technological or cultural developments; examples include TAP water (to distinguish it from bottled); ACOUSTIC guitar (not electric).  Previously it was unnecessary to qualify the noun, because there was only one variety.

Hope you enjoyed this little excursion into the world of words.