N is for for nicknames

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Can we control people through names?

John Major? Johnny Major? Johnno Major? William Clinton? Bill Clinton? Billie Clinton? Will Clinton? Willie Clinton? Liam Clinton? What’s the difference?

Shortening the first name seems straightforward enough—Peter to Pete, Gabriel to Gabe or Gay, Gillian to Gill, Andrew to Drew, depending where the speaker comes from. When you shorten a name, you make some claim to acquaintanceship or familiarity. As I was saying to Liz Taylor yesterday... The use of the "ie/y" ending, as in Nicky, Bobbie or Frankie, obeys more subtle rules. In many languages the ‘high’ "i" sound by itself suggests smallness, as in teeny-weeny itsy bitsy polka dot bikini, or wee beastie, compared to the ‘low’ vowel sounds in huge, large, vast, enormous, or even humongous. Adding an "i" sound to someone’s name indeed sounds familiar and friendly, but it also suggests you they are small and childish. Rightly is "ie/y" called the diminutive ending.

In 1996 an advertising campaign for WEA Records used the same slogan in several newspapers with a change of name: in the Sun it read What can I get for Mikey?, in the Mail What can I get for Lucy?, in the Guardian What can I get for Vicky? and in the Independent What can I get for Deirdre? No-one pointed out in the newspaper discussion of this that all the names end in "-ie/y", with the exception of Deirdre and even that ends in an "i" sound in speech!

A way of minimising these childish overtones is to adopt spellings such as Nicki or Ricki. Or indeed the team responsible for an Australian TV series claim to be Mucci, Yucci and Succi. The choice between the short form and the "-ie/y" ending depends on the speaker’s attitude: Nick/Nicky, Ed/Eddie, Alf/Alfie. The short forms such as Tom sound slightly less condescending than the "ie/y" forms such as Tommy. In a backlash against "-ie/y", some names have "y"-less endings, such as Johnno for Johnny, Anders for Andrew, Debs for Debbie, or Kell for Kelly.

Other languages use similar effects. In Russian, the same woman may be called Nataä lja on formal occasions, Nataä sé a by her close family, Nataä sé en'ka by someone who is pleased to speak to her, Nataä sé ecè ka by someone who is talking down to her, and Nataä sé ka by someone who knows her well. In Polish a man called Jan can also be called Janek, Jasienä ku, Jasiaƒtko, and Jasiek. Each of the forms controls the person named in a slightly different way.

The value attached to different forms of a name changes over time Jazz altoist Johnny Dankworth became respectable John Dankworth. More recently this trend towards the full name has been reversed, as with Bill Clinton though Billy Clinton still seems unlikely. Even the "ie/y" forms have become more used. While the 1950s the Prime Minister was definitely Anthony Eden, in the 1980s Maggie was Prime Minister in some contexts, and in the 1990s the leader of ‘New’ Labour is Tony Blair.

So the belief that knowing someone’s name gives you power over them is far from dead, merely displaced to the form of their name. Using the first name may be one signal of power, as in teacher to pupil, boss to secretary, or indeed news readers’ use of first names and nicknames for women victims of crimes—Jackie’s body found. Shortening the name, Michael to Mike, shows familiarity; adding an "ie/y" shows an additional layer of condescension, Susan to Susie. When the usual forms are Queen Lizzie and Prince Phil, we will know the monarchy finally has no power over us.