An introduction to nicknames

Rotundo, Barbara. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (Concord, Mass.) gravestone: Nellie, February 1989. Barbara Rotundo Papers (PH 050). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

As a genealogist, I often get questions from patrons about differences in given names. For example, are Ellen Turner and Nellie Turner the same person? What was her "real" name? What about Ann Coe and Nancy Coe? (The answer, in both cases, is yes, they were the same person.)

There are quite a few nicknames, for females in particular, that were historically used interchangeably with what might be considered the "true" given (or Christian) name today. These nicknames were so common and widespread that at the time there would have been no question as to whether or not they were referring the same individual. A birth might be recorded under the name Ann, the marriage might appear under Nancy, and the death record might show Ann again – but these all referred to the same person. Some of these variations are obvious (or still around today), others less so. Of course, there are also regional variations, and variations based on the language spoken at home.  

A birth might be recorded under the name Ann, the marriage might appear under Nancy, and the death record might show Ann again...

In general, there was more variation among female names than male names, and there were generally more nicknames associated with female names, as well. These trends seem to persist today. 

Putting together a complete list of these variations would make for a very long blog post – and it's been done by others before. In fact, there is a whole field of study that examines the names of both people and places, which is called "onomastics." Nonetheless, this question about nicknames is such a common one that I put together a short list of the most common given name and nickname combinations I've come across. These are some of most frequent female name variations you'll see while doing eighteenth- to early twentieth-century research among English-speakers in the U.S.: 

Abigail/Abby, Nabby 

Ann(e), Anna/AnnieNan, Nancy 

Bridget/Biddie, Biddy, Della, Delia 

Dorothy/Dolly, Dot, Dotha, Dottie 

Elizabeth/Bess, Bessie, Betsy, Betty, Eliza, Libby, Liza, Lizzie 

Ellen/Nell, Nellie (sometimes interchangeable with Eleanor, Eleanora, Helen, or Helena) 

Frances/Fanny, Frankie, Franny 

Jane/GinceyJennie (sometimes interchangeable with Jean or Janet) 

Margaret/Daisy, Madge, Maggie, Meg, Peg, Peggy 

Martha/Mattie, Patsy, Patty 

Mary/Mamie, Molly, Polly 


Of course, this doesn’t mean that Ann Coe and Nancy Coe are necessarily the same person. Comparing age, place of birth, place of residence, the names of relatives, and other details should of course be done in order to confirm this. Knowing that certain names had common nicknames or variations just gets you a little closer to solving the puzzle! 


You can read more about female nicknames and name variations in the following resources: 

“A Listing of Some Nicknames Used in the 18th & 19th Centuries,” Connecticut State Library, 

Christine Rose, Nicknames Past and Present, 5th ed. (San Jose, Calif., 2007). 

Dennis A. Hogan, “Given Name Alternatives for Irish Research,” 

Donald Lines Jacobus, “Nicknames in New England,” The American Genealogist 45 [1969]: 78-81. 

E.G. WithycombeThe Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1959). 

“Female Ancestor First Names and Nicknames (+ Searchable Guide),” Family Tree Magazine, 

Leonard R. Ashley, What’s in a Name ... Everything You Wanted to Know (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989). 

The archives of the journal NAMES: A Journal of Onomastics are available online here: 

Hallie Borstel

About Hallie Borstel

Hallie Borstel has a BA in history with minors in art history and German language from American University, as well as an MA in historic preservation from Tulane University. She joined NEHGS after several years working in architectural restoration and preservation in New Orleans. She has also worked at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, the West Virginia Railroad Museum, and Bender Library at American University. Her research interests include Germany, New York City, immigration history, and 19th-century America.View all posts by Hallie Borstel