I find it unusual and rather contrary to common sense and logic that some nicknames should have no apparent relation to their original names, such as "Jack" for "John(eg. JFK)" or "Jonathan", "Patsy" for "Martha," or "Ted" for "Edward"(shouldn't it be Ed or Eddie?).

"Bill" for "William"(if someone could explain this to me, it would be great), "Jim or Jimmy" for "James" are still understandable as they rhyme in some degree with the pronunciation of the originals.

I wonder how this happened and why should the resulting tradition still be in use in today's English.

Can anyone enlighten me ?

  • Well it certainly doesn't bear any similarities also, I find that far less understandable, that's why I wonder how someone(even if a literature genius or not) could come up with very different nickname with no resemblance or connection to original names, sorry but I find that rather incompletely informative.
    – Vicky Dev
    Mar 28 '17 at 21:28
  • To a large degree, this tradition is not still followed in today's English. E.g. someone named "Mary" is not very likely to be nicknamed "Polly" today (a few of the first Pollys I found listed on Wikipedia were actually short for "Pauline"!)
    – herisson
    Mar 28 '17 at 21:39
  • Also "Bob" for "Robert".
    – user128216
    Mar 29 '17 at 5:42
  • Basically you're asking why there is etymology. Language changes over time, and associations that were widely used at some point in history of course seem arbitrary to those who aren't part of that culture. And beware of "common sense" ... it's the lowest common denominator, the knowledge of those who know nothing.
    – Jim Balter
    Mar 29 '17 at 6:16
  • "Dick" for Richard will remain among my favorites. 😏
    – M.Mat
    Mar 29 '17 at 8:17

There is no clear origin for such nicknames:


  • There are many theories on why Bill became a nickname for William; the most obvious is that it was part of the Middle Ages trend of letter swapping. Much how Dick is a rhyming nickname for Rick, the same is true of Bill and Will. Because hard consonants are easier to pronounce than soft ones, some believe Will morphed into Bill for phonetic reasons. Interestingly, when William III ruled over in England in the late 17th century, his subjects mockingly referred to him as "King Billy."


  • The name Jack dates back to about 1,200 and was originally used as a generic name for peasants. Over time, Jack worked his way into words such as lumberjack and steeplejack. Even jackass, the commonly used term for a donkey, retains its generic essence in the word Jack. Of course, John was once used as a generic name for English commoners and peasants, (John Doe) which could be why Jack came became his nickname. But the more likely explanation is that Normans added -kin when they wanted to make a diminutive. And Jen was their way of saying John. So little John became Jenkin and time turned that into Jakin, which ultimately became Jack.


  • The name Ted is yet another result of the Old English tradition of letter swapping. Since there were a limited number of first names in the Middle Ages, letter swapping allowed people to differentiate between people with the same name. It was common to replace the first letter of a name that began with a vowel, as in Edward, with an easier to pronounce consonant, such as T. Of course, Ted was already a popular nickname for Theodore, which makes it one of the only nicknames derived from two different first names.


  • The name Margaret has a variety of different nicknames. Some are obvious, as in Meg, Mog and Maggie, while others are downright strange, like Daisy. But it's the Mog/Meg we want to concentrate on here as those nicknames later morphed into the rhymed forms Pog(gy) and Peg(gy).

(source: mentalfloss.com)

  • 3
    Probably Will to Vill to Bill due to like German pronouncing W's as V's and V's being close to B's. Mar 28 '17 at 21:50
  • 1
    I wonder how on earth they arrive at the bizarre conclusions that “hard consonants are easier to pronounce than soft ones” and—especially ludicrous—that a t is easier to pronounce than nothing at all. Mar 28 '17 at 21:59
  • 5
    @JanusBahsJacquet when working with a phoneme in a vacuum, there's not really a difference in difficulty between hard consonants, soft consonants and vowels. However, when you start actually using them, they'll be combined with many other phonemes. It's very easy to slur together 2 vowel sounds spoken back-to-back. And to a lesser extent, to slur together a vowel sound with a soft consonant. However, you would have to really try to make a hard consonant sound like anything other than it should, regardless of what it comes after. Thus, hard consonants become easier to pronounce.
    – Elezar
    Mar 29 '17 at 0:19
  • 8
    Daisy isn't strange, the French version of Margaret is Marguerite, which also means 'daisy'. In English some people call ox-eye daisies Marguerites.
    – Spagirl
    Mar 29 '17 at 7:47
  • 4
    @JanusBahsJacquet For an example (of what Elezar is saying), "Our Ted" is easier to enunciate than "Our Ed" (as in, "Our Ed's gone and got 'imself wed").
    – TripeHound
    Mar 29 '17 at 7:54

While @Josh's answer is good and provides quite a lot of historical background for some of the specific nicknames, it doesn't completely address why, in general, names are truncated: the nicknames you've listed are diminutives:

A diminutive is a word which has been modified to convey a slighter degree of its root meaning, to convey the smallness of the object or quality named, or to convey a sense of intimacy or endearment...they are often employed as nicknames and pet names.

There's a link in that particular Wikipedia article for diminutives by language. Under that subsequent article, there are several names under the English subheading which are along the lines of the names you've listed:

The most common include shortening a longer name (e.g., "Pete" for Peter) or adding the diminutive suffix /i/ ("movie" for moving picture), variously spelled -y ("Sally" for Sarah), -ie ("Maggie" for Margaret), and -i ("Dani" for Danielle).

In short, such nicknames don't have to make sense based on the spelling of the original word (e.g. "Bill" for "William"); they're more commonly based on sound and length, as well as the "friendliness" of the alternative nickname form. In this case, "Bill" is much more informal, casual, and friendly than "William". In an exaggerated sense, think of it as the difference between your good friend "Bill" from the office and some nobleman named "William" from, say, England.

  • 3
    +1 I wonder if any research has been done on how often child names survive to adulthood. Quite often a child is unable to actually pronounce the name it has been given for some time after having started to talk. This is particularly true for long/hard names. To me (and I assume to other parents too) it was important our daughter learned to refer to herself so we came up with a name which was quite vaguely related (Lili for Viola) but that she was able to pronounce.
    – DRF
    Mar 29 '17 at 5:58
  • 2
    @DRF Queen Elizabeth II is, seemingly, still known by members of the Royal family as "Lilibet", the name she used for herself when young (originally "Tillabet").
    – TripeHound
    Mar 29 '17 at 8:01
  • 1
    @DRF My Aunt's name is "Karen" but while my grandmother was pregnant, her toddler son asked what the baby's name would be. She was expecting to have a boy and had picked "Michael" and told my young uncle, "We're naming him Mikey," a diminutive she thought he'd be able to say. Once born, "Karen" became "Pikie" because he couldn't get the "M." She remained "Pikie" to family and friends throughout her entire life.
    – M.Mat
    Mar 29 '17 at 8:34

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