Pet names are also known as hypocoristic names (from the Greek hupokorisma, meaning “affectionate name.” They can be shorter than the original name, or longer through the addition of a dimunitive suffix, such as -ette, -ina, -ey, or -y.
What's in a Name
The highly unusual first name of actress Tuesday Weld was derived from a pet name. Weld's baby sister pronounced her given name, Susan, as “Su-Su.” Over time, Su-Su became Tuesday, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The first significant name fashion to emerge that wasn't based on religious beliefs or honoring famous people came from the simplified forms that babies use when pronouncing multi-syllable names as they first learn to talk. Such tough-to-pronounce names (for babies, anyway) as Harold turned quite easily into Hal. Abby was a natural baby-talk version of Abigail.
These simplified names, called “nursery” or “pet” names, were originally limited to use in the home or among very close friends, as they weren't considered appropriate forms of address for proper men and ladies. However, some became so popular that they began to be accepted as first names in their own right during the eighteenth century.
The following is a selection of some popular names from that period and the pet names that were derived from them that have since gained acceptance as given names:
- Abigail: Abby, Gail, Gale, Gayle
- Ann: Annie, Nancy
- Belinda: Linda
- Cassandra: Cass, Sandy
- Elizabeth: Bess, Beth, Betsy, Bette, Betty, Elisa, Elise, Lisa, Liza
- Faith: Fay, Faye
- Helen: Ella, Nell, Nelly
- Judith: Jody, Judy
- Katherine (or Catherine): Kathy, Kay, Kitty, Katie
- Sarah: Sadie, Sally, Sari
- Susanna: Sue, Susan, Susie, Suzy
- Theresa: Tracy
- Alexander: Al, Alec, Alex, Sandy
- Alfred: Alf, Alfie, Fred
- James: Jamie, Jimmy
- John: Jack, Jock, Johnny
- Michael: Mick, Mickey, Mitch
- Nicholas: Nick, Colin
- Richard: Dick, Rick, Rich
- Robert: Rob, Bobby, Robin
- William: Bill, Billy, Will, Willy
From: Leslie Alan Dunkling, First Names First (Universe Books, 1977).
Pet names such as Nancy, Sally, Hal, and Robin have gained such wide acceptance as first names in their own right that we often don't realize that they were derived from older, more traditional names. Other pet names are still largely relegated to that category alone, although some are gaining in popularity for other reasons. Katie, a diminutive of Katherine, is currently fairly high on the popularity lists, largely due to the immense popularity of former Today show host Katie Couric; so, too, is the pet name favored by her co-host, Matt Lauer.
Pet names, because they're generally more informal than the given names from which they are derived, often make the people who bear them seem more approachable or “down to earth.” In business settings, however, it can be tough to take a Jimmy or a JoJo seriously. Steer clear of using pet names that are too casual or juvenile as given names.
In any case, we're far beyond the days when parish priests would automatically enter Ann, Sarah, and Elizabeth as the proper names for the Nancys, Sallys, and Betsys presented to them for baptism. If you like the name Katie, you don't have to name your baby girl Katherine to get there.
Several ethnic groups are very fond of pet names, and you'll see these derivative names used among these people more than others. Hispanics will often create pet names by attaching a diminutive ending to a popular name, like Carmelita, Pepita, and Juanita. The Japanese are also fond of creating names in this fashion.