Issue 196, page 1

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About

spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes)

Spotlight on...

Pet Names

No, we're not talking about names given to dogs and cats.  We are talking of the kind of pet names we give to children or other loved ones.  We have often wondered how Jack came from John, for example.  Well, we know, now, and we are going to let you in on it, too.

Jack is derived from the Middle English diminutive of John, Jankin, which today we might say as "Johnkins" or "Johnnykins".  The suffix -kin is what is known as hypocoristic, meaning, basically, that it is part of a pet name.  Jankin was altered to Jackin, and that was back-formed to JackThe Oxford Names Companion suggests that the back-formation occurred because people thought the suffix was -in instead of -kin, and -in was an Old French diminutive suffix.  Now Jack is often used as a name on its own.  It is not related to French Jacques, for which the English equivalent is James.

Henry IV - click to follow the linkHank is also related to John.  It was Hankin, the diminutive of Han, which was a short form of Jehan, a form of John.  Instead of dropping the -kin to back-form another name, only the -in was dropped, as in Jack.  Hank is also considered a pet form of Henry in the U.S.  Of course, the well-known pet form of Henry is Harry, which is thought to have arisen from the French pronunciation of Henry, nasalizing the "n".  Harry got its own pet form: Hal (remember Shakespeare's Henry IV?).  Apparently the mutation from r to l is not uncommon.  It happened also in the pet name for Sarah, Sally.

Now what about Peg from Margaret?  Where on earth did that P come from?  Apparently that m to p change occurred in Molly and Polly, as well.  Peg comes from Meg, which is an alteration of Mag (from which Maggie comes), a shortened form of Margaret.  No one quite knows the reason for the m to p shift.  A Celtic influence has been suggested, but with no evidence of other such shifts in Celtic.

Molly, by the way, is actually a pet form of Mary, having been altered from Mally (that r to l shift again).  

Then there are Bill from William and Bob from Robert.  What gives with the popularity of the initial letter B?  In the case of Bill, which did not become a short form of William before the 19th century, it appears to be a Celtic influence -- when words with an initial W are borrowed into Gaelic, the W mutates to a B.  As for Bob, no one is quite sure, but it is a later formation than other short forms of Robert such as Dob, Hob and Nob, which are medieval in origin.

We will finish with the pet name for Richard which grows less common every year: Dick.  Where did that one come from?  The -ick part of it is not difficult to analyze -- look at RickRichard is pronounced Rickard in German, so it is easy to see whence the -ick arose.  The D in Dick is thought to have come about when native English speakers, during the Middle Ages, had trouble trilling the initial R as would have been done in Norman French.

Why the name Dick has dropped in popularity is another matter altogether.

Do you enjoy reading Take Our Word For It?  If so, take a moment to let us know by making a donation.  Just click the  button!  

Looking for more information on words?  Why not browse our bookstore?

  Shop at


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright 1995-
2005 TIERE
Last Updated 01/16/05 12:43 AM