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Many names seem to get a "-y" or "-ie" at the end when the speaker wishes to denote a hint of familiarity, intimacy, or tenderness. Examples can be seen not just in names, but in terms like puppy, kitty. Close friends of Robert might call him Bobby, whereas, if you think about it, it's hard to imagine Bobby used in a more formal setting.

What is the origin of this practice?

15

The "-y" is a suffix for forming diminutive nouns, and Wiktionary has an entry dedicated to it, though it doesn't say anything about etymology other than "from Middle English and Scots". Thankfully, The Free Library provides lots of further insight, but the bottom line is that nobody really knows for sure, and "the etymology of the diminutive suffix -y, -ie [will] most certainly remain controversial". The same suffix exists in modern German, where it is spelled as "-i" (Mami, Papi, Mausi, Steffi, Susi, Schumi), but again, the connection to English is unclear.

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  • +1 Wow thanks! That article is very good. Your answer would be awesomer if you summarized some of the main points/theories about the origin of the diminutive present in that article. – Doug T. Sep 16 '10 at 23:29
  • @Doug: I was thinking about that, and I probably even must do that according to this comment by Jeff Atwood on meta, but I'm having an awfully hard time figuring out which parts I should quote and which I may omit. – RegDwigнt Sep 16 '10 at 23:36
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    I have now summed it up as "the etymology will remain controversial", because that's what the author actually ends up saying. There are a few theories, and lots of extremely interesting observations, but ultimately, presenting them all here would just add to speculation rather than clarity. – RegDwigнt Sep 17 '10 at 0:02
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    Self-promotion pays off. I would never have seen this had you not adverted to it under a much more recent question. – Robusto Nov 30 '13 at 2:12
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According to C.A. Ferguson, this is one feature of "Baby Talk Register" or "parentese", a kind of language that some parents slip into when talking to their child at a young age. Parents, for example, might refer to themselves in the third person like "Who's mummy's little boy". One other feature is adding the /iː/ sound on the end of words, like "dog" -> "doggy"/"doggie". I'm not sure if this is something parents pick up from children or the other way around, but either way it's possible that this pattern of adding /iː/ came from this feature of parent-child interactions.

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In ancient Hebrew the "i" (yod) is added to denote first person possessive as in "abi" and "immi" (my father and my mother). It appears that possession implies intimacy in a relationship and thus a way to make a name more precious and personal.

Refer to a Hebrew language primer, for example: http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Grammar/Unit_Seven/Prepositions_with_Suffixes/prepositions_with_suffixes.html

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    And the connection to English is... ? – herisson Nov 26 '15 at 6:30
  • Lots of names in use in “modern” English are Hebrew names (Hannah, Sarah, Esther, Mariam, ... – Will Crawford Feb 16 '18 at 1:58
  • Interesting that the practice is thought to have early beginnings in English and German, they are closely related languages. The Hebrew however is much older and pretty far removed from them. The diminutive y to denote first person possessive perhaps came to be applied in less intimate relations over time. A prime example would be that we often address and refer to our friends the same way. At least when the sound fits the name well enough. – Rene Mar 29 at 22:44
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Typically -y is feminine, -ie is masculine.

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    Are you sure you don’t have that backwards? – tchrist Sep 29 '12 at 0:16
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    I'm sure he has it backwards. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 29 '12 at 0:20
  • So am I. Backwards it must be! – WS2 Nov 29 '13 at 23:26
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    Tommy, Charlie, Jenny, Lizzie. I don't think there is a typical spelling here for either gender. – Peter Shor Nov 30 '13 at 14:16
  • Nope............. Supporting evidence? – Drew Jul 24 '16 at 16:08

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