What's in a Name
Morrison and Wayne Conway|
Copyright 2004 all rights reserved
In the United States, the current president, George W. Bush, has a propensity for giving people nicknames. He gives them not only to his staff, but also to the reporters in the White House Press Corps. Of course, he also has his own nickname: “Dubya,” which is the usual pronunciation of his middle initial in his home state of Texas. (This differentiates him from his father, former president George H.W. Bush.)
The use of nicknames is
common around the world. The world leader for nicknames is The
Philippines, where almost everyone has a nickname. Filipinos can
have long and complicated names, which can be difficult to
pronounce. (There is a story about Richard Nixon, back when he was
the U.S. Vice President, visiting a Filipino farmer with the
tongue-twisting name of
Even politicians in The Philippines have nicknames, like Panfilo “Ping” Lacson and “Dongdong”Avanzado. To an outsider, this may be surprising, because the Filipinos restrict the use of nicknames to one’s friends and family. But that is exactly why politicians publicize their nicknames: It’s a way of making their constituents feel like members of the families.
Nicknames that Describe
One reason nicknames are
used is that they can describe a person, making it unnecessary to
remember their real names. Certainly President Bush does this: He
likes to call tall people “stretch.” At one point he had three men
he called “Stretch” in the White House Press Corps. NBC
Correspondent David Gregory (6’5”) was named “Little Stretch”; Dick
Kyle of Bloomsberg News
(6’6”) was named “Stretch”; and Bill Sammon of the Washington
Nicknames that Shorten a Long Name
Another reason to use a nickname is to shorten an overlong name. President Bush does this as well, even with names that are fairly short: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is “Rummy”; Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman is “Fine.”
However, there are many names that are long enough to be cumbersome. As an example, here are some given names used by the Urhobo people of Africa. The first column has their full name and the second column has the shorter nickname. Since all Urhobo names have a meaning, the English translation is given in the third column. All these names can be given to either a boy or a girl.
LONG FORM NICKNAME(S) MEANING
Akpenvwoghene Akpenvwe “Praise God”
Eghwrudjakpor Jakpor “I have come to stay”
Inenevwerha Nene “There is joy in motherhood”
Oghenerukevwe Rukevwe or Ruks “God did this for me”
As you can see, the short forms can come from the beginning, the end, or somewhere in the middle. This is also done with names common in the West. Here are four given names shortened in a way similar to each of the above:
Alexander Al or Alex (initial syllables)
Monica Nica (final syllables)
Cassandra Sandy (second syllable)
Veronica Ronnie (central syllable)
The Origins of Surnames
We have lived with surnames so long that it’s easy to forget people who live in societies without high technology get along just fine without surnames. The British adopted surnames between 1250 and 1450. Most Europeans adopted surnames by the 19th century. In Turkey, surnames were not mandatory until 1935. And even today, many people around the world make do with just one name. The first two presidents of Indonesia—Sukarno and Suharto—had just one name.
When people have to pick a surname, where do they get them? Surnames tend to come from four different sources: locations, occupations, patronymics and nicknames.
Location names can come from the names of specific places (Chester, Ireland, London, etc.) or geographical features (Fields, Marsh, Rivers, etc.).
Occupations have been used for many surnames. Baker, Miller, Smith and Tailor are easily understood, but some occupations are now archaic. A Chandler was originally a candle-maker; a Crofter was one who bleached linen on the grass (although the term was also used for a tenant farmer in the Scots Highlands). And, in Britain, Banker originally referred not to a moneylender but also to a person who lived on a hillside.
A patronymic is a name derived from your father. (A name derived from one’s mother would be a matronymic; they are quite rare.)
The Scandinavians are famous for patronymics: Anderson is obviously “son of Anders,” Davidsen is “son of David,” and so on. In most countries, these have become inheritable surnames—the original Anders in Anderson might have died a hundred years ago.
Of course, Scots names beginning with Mc or Mac are usually patronymics, as are Irish names beginning with O’. Russians and Poles use patronymics as middle names. In fact, the familiar-but-proper way to address someone in these countries is by their given name and patronymic. For example, Dmitry Fyodorovich Ivanov would be called “Dmitry Fyodorovich” which means Dmitry, son of Fyodor (Fyodor is the Slavic version of Theodore).
However, one nation still uses literal patronymics in place of surnames: Iceland. In Iceland, if your name is Petur (the local form of Peter), and your father’s name is Jon, your full name is Petur Jonson. Your son Oskar will be Oskar Peturson. Your daughter Frida will be Frida Petursdotter (daughter-of-Petur). Since Iceland is a small country with good record-keeping, this system seems to work for them. And it isn’t mandatory—some Icelanders now use an inherited surname, generation after generation.
Nicknames into Surnames
Finally, nicknames themselves can become surnames. In the following list, the nicknames are identified as to their countries of origin and their original meanings. As you can see, many are not complimentary:
Gotobed British “a lazy, sleepy person”
Gough Welsh “red-haired” or “ruddy complexioned”
Fodor Hungarian “curly-haired”
Kennedy Gaelic “ugly head”
Kuprys Lithuanian “hunchback”
Stammler German “stutterer”
Unruh German “agitator, trouble-maker”
Vak Hungarian “blind”
With origins like these, perhaps it’s just as well that the true meanings of these names are largely forgotten!