A nickname is an extra name, and, usually, a gift from a family member or close friend.

However, I think the name between nicknames and diminutives has blurred a lot in the last few decades. Have you noticed that too? I used to put nicknames and diminutive/pet names in two separate boxes. Nicknames were alternative names. They rarely had any connection to your first name and usually involved a private joke or physical features that others found endearing.  Diminutive/pet names usually were shortened, casual versions of your first name.

For example, my friend Geoffrey had the nickname Rocky as well as the diminutive name Geoffy. (The latter was solely used as a private family name. His friends called him Rocky and his mother and grandmother called him Geoffy.) When a family names a child, they usually decide on a pet name before or just after the child's birth. But, in most cases, a child's nickname emerged later--once the child had developed distinctive physical attributes, personality traits, or family roles (i.e., Bitsy).  Of course, some nicknames are inevitable from the start, like Trip for the child bearing the suffix III.

Now, I find that a lot of people doesn't recognize or value that difference between nicknames or diminutive pet names anymore, which may not be a bad thing. (Ha! So I guess I'm saying it's just a thing.) Maybe that's because the distinction between private and public identities has blurred. Maybe the nickname, in the sense I described it, is just a dying cultural artifact.

Of course, the best part about nicknames and diminutives is that they're all still gifts bestowed on someone you care about.  And...that it's a kind of name-bestowing that doesn't pertain only to birth.  For those of us who love naming, this is good news!  Even once you've picked out the formal name of a child, there's the promise that someday, you'll probably get the chance to add one or two "extra" names to their identity.

I've recently become friends with a family whose family all have received adorable nicknames over the years:

  • Bitsy for the petite aunt
  • Chip for the brother that is the spitting image of his father ("chip off the old block")
  • Pip for the sister with an incredible singing voice ("Pipes")
  • Taffy for elderly uncle whose first name is David (apparently, this is a common nickname for David in Wales?)

Do you have nickname rules you like to follow when you give a child or friend a nickname? Have any favorite nicknames that you're dying to bestow on a friend or child someday?





October 31, 2012 2:41 PM

Hmmm... I'd have to research this, but in my experience, a nickname is usually derivative from your full name while a pet/diminutive names can be anything. Thus my daughter Ev@ngeline's nn is Evie, but our pet name for her is Bunny as she was born on Easter.


As in nicknames are for everyone, but the pet/dimunitive name is a private one. We don't call her Bunny in public (well, my husband does, but that's all he calls her right now).


By EVie
October 31, 2012 4:13 PM

I'd mostly agree with sharalyns on this one. A pet name is something private and cutesy, like Peanut or, um, Honey Boo Boo. I wouldn't expect these to be used outside the family, or even past childhood, though occasionally they are (I know a grown man who goes by Buddy... I find it kind of awkward). A nickname is derived from the actual name. In many cases there are established nicknames for particular names (Jack for John, Liz/Beth/Betty/Betsy for Elizabeth), and in other cases they can be derived in a more creative fashion. These are often used as the everyday call name, even by people who don't know the person very well. 

"Diminutive" is more of an academic term, but its meaning is closer to what I've defined as "nickname"—it's a form of a name that is "smaller." This doesn't mean "shorter." In the Middle Ages and previously, diminutives were frequently formed by adding syllables to a name that effectively mean "little"; common ones include -et(te), -ot(te), -illa/-ille, -el(le), -in, -on, -kin, -cock. So, Lucille is a diminutive of Lucia; Juliet(te) is a diminutive of Julie; Marian/Marion is a diminutive of Marie; Charlotte and Caroline are both feminine diminutives of Charles (the original masculine diminutives were Charlot and Carolin); Emmett is a diminutive of Emma; Colin is diminutive of Nicholas, via Col(e); Elliott is a diminutive of Elias; Jack became a diminutive of John because of the progression John -> Johnkin -> Jankin -> Jack. -cock we don't really see in given names anymore, but it survives in some surnames (Hancock, probably a diminutive of Hann, a Flemish form of John, or possibly of Henry). Another academic term you see for this sort of name is "hypocoristic" (which itself has an interesting derivation: Greek hupokorizesthai, meaning "play the child").

Today, the more common way of forming diminutives/hypocoristics seems to be by shortening the name or adding -y, both of which also existed in the Middle Ages. The ironic thing is when people do things like name their daughter Lucille intending to use Lucy as a nickname, when historically, Lucille is a nickname for Lucy (and literally means "little Lucy"); Lucy is not a diminutive at all, just an Anglicized version of Lucia (just like Mary is Anglicized Maria, and Emily is Anglicized Emilia).

October 31, 2012 6:29 PM

This was my thought, too, but EVie explained it way more eloquently than I could.

By J.
October 31, 2012 9:20 PM

How ironic! Thanks for clearing up my confusion. I guess the little enclave I grew up in defined nicknames and diminutive names in an unusual way--as totally separate categories. Like most human beings, I just assumed we were the "normal" ones.  Thanks for your input! It explains why so many people feel comfortable using diminutive names for non-family members. I've been set right. I'm definitely going to try to be less annoyed when non-family members use my diminutive name. It doesn't have the intimate connotations for others that I myself feel it carries.

December 14, 2012 8:05 PM

nicknames vs. diminutives vs. pet names makes this way more confusing than it needs to be. I do agree with you in some ways, J., I believe there is a difference between nicknames & pet names, but I think "diminuative names" is just a fancy word for "nicknames," or at least the category requirments for diminutives can be classified as a different type of nickname.

Here are my definitions:


Genre #1: A "smaller" version of a name -- not necessarily shorter -- ex: a father & son are both named"Jack," so the son is called "Jackson" 

Genre #2: A playful name based off a name, not necessarily shorter -- ex: "Jack-Jack" for Jack

Genre #3: A shorter name based off a longer version -- ex: "Jack" for "Jackson"

Pet Name

A name unrelated to their given name -- albeit, sometimes reserved for certain people in your mind or in the rest of the group's oppinion, too, but are not off-limits to other people, either

December 15, 2012 9:19 AM

So when we call my son "T.J.", is it a nick name, a pet name, or a diminutive?  It is so his NAME. . .so much so that if someone calls and asks for Thomas, I think they have the wrong number!  We--his family-- have gotten lazy over the years, I guess, and now call him "Teej" (one syllable, rhymes with liege).

One grandfather calls him Tony, his uncle calls him Spike, and a family friend calls him T-Man.  I thinks he likes the bond he has between each of these important men in his life.  He signs birthday cards to each of them with the respective "nickname."

He has never been called Tom, though, except by teachers automatically assuming it was short for Thomas at the beginning of the year.  And one teacher told me that T.J. came up to her and politely told her after she wrote "TJ" on his placecard that his name was "T period J period, not just the letters." 

I guess I think of the words nickname, pet name, and diminutive as completely synonymous, but I am not an expert and may be an example of society's 'blurring' the meanings like the original poster said.

By EVie
December 18, 2012 5:54 PM

I would say it's not a diminutive, because a diminutive is a name that makes the original name somehow *smaller* (Tom is a diminutive of Thomas, as is Tommy; something like Tomkin is as well, even though it's not fewer letters). I don't think initials really fall into that category, though. I would call it more a nickname, though pet name isn't completely inaccurate either.