As every Tom, Dick and Harry can tell you, many of our most common nicknames make no sense. This struck me forcefully when I was speaking to a friend of mine named Margaret, who goes by the nickname “Peg.” It turns out, a lot of women named Margaret are nicknamed Peg or Peggy. What’s the logic of that? You might as well call these women “Brad.”
Then, a few days later, I made the mistake of using the nickname “Dick” for a friend of mine named Richard. Listen, I didn’t mean it as an insult. I meant it as an innocent nickname.
He protested vehemently, far more than I thought necessary, although I suppose I would be vehement too if I had been scarred at an early age by people calling me “Little Dickie.”
Anyway, after a lengthy protest, he plaintively inquired, “Where did that nickname come from, anyway? How did anybody get ‘Dick’ from Richard? Who ever thought of that?”
Gee, that’s a good question, Dick. And when you direct a question like that to me, Mr. Nickname Information Man, you don’t get a mere nodding of the head and a murmur of sympathy. You get results. You get me diving into the Oxford English Dictionary and emerging with answers to your questions, as well as answers to some questions you never asked or even cared about.
Well, Richard, you can blame the French on one hand and the English on the other. Richard in old French is “Ricard,” which is easily shortened to “Rick.” But then the English, with their penchant for rhyming slang, got hold of it and randomly replaced the R with another consonant. It might just as well have been Bick or Hick or Sick; the only important thing is that it rhymed with “Rick.” They just happened to settle on “Dick.” Don’t take it personally.
As it turns out, the same thing happened with Margaret. The short form of Margaret is Meg. But then the English started playing around with consonants and came up with Peg. It could have been worse. Another old pet-name for Margaret was “Mog” which became “Pog.” If Pog hadn’t died a natural death around the time of Chaucer, we might still be calling all of our Margarets “Poggy” right now.
My favorite nickname of all time, Bob, came about in a similar way. Robert became Rob and then the English grabbed a consonant out of a hat and turned it into Bob. Same thing with William, which became Will, which became Bill.
But then the mystery of Jack. How did Jack ever get to be a nickname for John? Well, authorities on the subject long believed that Jack derived from the French name Jacques.
As it turns out, they didn’t know Jack.
They didn’t know Jacques, either. The problem with Jacques is that it doesn’t mean “John” in French. It means James or something. The English then stuck the diminutive -kin onto John or Jan or Jean, making it something like “Jankin.” Then they dropped the “-in” and swallowed the first “n” and ended up with something like Jack.
All right, I’m not sure I buy this story either, but that’s what the experts say. Actually, this -kin thing may explain a number of baffling nicknames. The old English would tack -kin onto names the way we tack -y on names. So instead of saying Charley, they might say Charlkin, which would become Charlk, which is impossible to say without gargling, so it evolved to Chuck. (This is my own theory, but it’s no goofier than the official Jack explanation.)
It would also explain how Henry became Hank, although another Henry nickname, Harry, came by an entirely different route. This came from the English attempting to pronounce the French name “Henri,” and garbling it. Harry also a became nickname for Harold, of course, which is a good example of a nickname which does make sense. I don’t need to explain how Thomas became Tom, or Frederick became Fred, or Ronald Reagan became “The Gipper.” Every Mog, Peg and Poggy knows that.
Anyway, I hope I’ve answered your question, Little Dickie.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jim Kershner The Spokesman-Review
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.