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 

Sarah/Sally 

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! 

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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, https://ctstatelibrary.org/access-services/nicknames/. 

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

Dennis A. Hogan, “Given Name Alternatives for Irish Research,” http://content.bandzoogle.com/users/dennisahogan/files/GivenNameAlternatives.pdf 

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, https://www.familytreemagazine.com/female-ancestors/female-first-names-nicknames/ 

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: https://www.americannamesociety.org/the-journal/ 

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.

47 thoughts on “An introduction to nicknames

  1. The brother of one of my ancestors was Charles Whitney Burst but he was called “Uncle Ty” or “Plumb.” I would not have known this but for my mother identifying him in an old group photo. His second nickname of Plumb was due to his occupation as a plumber.

    1. There are so many other types of nicknames besides what I outlined here – based on middle names, surnames, occupations, or appearance! It’s helpful when our older relatives can pass down that knowledge to us.

  2. Great post – under Elizabeth, I would add: Lida….just yesterday was explaining to another genealogist that yes, the Lida she had was the Eliza I had….

  3. Hallie Borstel this is a wonderful article. Nicknames were so prevalent in both sides of my famlly sorting them out was hard for me back in the 1970s when I first started working on Family History. Am forever Thankful for my maternal Grandmother then in her late 80s & early 90s who remembered her large family of Aunts, Uncle, cousins to tell me about all of them But her own maternal Grandfather whose name was Osborne, had nine sisters & brothers all with nicknames. Later when I was showing photos to some cousins in my generation they called him “Uncle Ob,” I was so pleased to hear it, of course my Grandmother didn’t tell me he also had a nickname:) He was Grandpa to her.

    1. Thank you, Mary! There is some fascinating literature out there about the origins of nicknames. You make a good point, some family members may have called one person by a nickname while other family members didn’t! It’s always helpful when we can share stories with cousins, etc. to get a richer picture of our ancestors’ lives!

      1. For sure, often shortened form of the actual name such as Harriett was Aunt Hat, but she had one Aunt Frances, known even by herself when she sent post cards, as Aunt Frank. Then her sister was Sarah, she was Aunt Sate., the woman who delivered my Mother did so for many others in the family was Clarissa, known as Aunt Cass. of course her sister was Caroline, always was Aunt Carrie, etc., etc. I had one older cousin known as Hank, her name was Henrietta which I never knew until she died, it was in her obituary.

  4. The one important instance that you omit is Anna/Hannah, very much interchangeable in 17th and 18th century New England records.

    Certainly the root is in various English dialects, and the adding or dropping of initial “H”.
    (In Newfoundland, the Organ and Horgan families have the same ancestry)

  5. There’s is a additional reason many used nicknames; spelling was horrible among the less educated, especially the middle and poverty classes. It wasn’t until the 20th century that record keepers and average citizens began to be more diligent about spellings and accuracy of individual records. Many Christians chose to name their children after saints as a first name, hence why you see a lot of Maries, Johns, and Josephs. It was believed that having the name of a saint would serve as a divine protection for the child. Thus, the middle name became the name used most often (especially when several children in a family had the same saint first name). Naming after ancestors was also extremely popular (as it still is today) and sometimes this meant having an awkwardly long or challenging name to pronounce. With spelling as bad as it was, this is where the nickname came to the rescue and how sometimes a nickname was completely far FAR afield from the given name. I have a great grandmother who was named Augustus Savannah, but she went my Rosa or Rosie. Even her gravestone says Rosa. Thanks for reviewing this topic.

    1. Hi Rocky, thanks for your comment! In my research, I have found that giving a saints’ name as a first name and a second name that was used on a day-to-day basis was common in some cultures but not necessarily in Anglo/Anglo-American cultures, which is what I tried to focus on here. However I think you are right that a lack of standardized spelling contributed to the large number of nicknames we see when we look back over the historic record!

      1. Hi Hallie, a focus on the Anglo/Anglo-America cultures must include the Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English, which were (by a huge majority) Christian cultures, especially the further back one goes in the U.S. records. Equally embedded in this Christian culture were the many European cultures (German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc). The tradition of naming children after saints to imbue them with divine protection is a long and conspicuous one that literally goes back to the origins of using surnames, which in turn gives better understanding to the pattern seen in the genealogical record. In the studies of onomastics one learns that the origin of calling the first name the “Christian name” adds further support to this well established tradition.

    1. Now you’ve left this comment as a clue for future generations, as long as the website stays up! 🙂

  6. Is there an intersection of the names Margaret and Gertrude (spelled Gertruyt and many other ways in the 1700s)? I’m running across some early Germans with multiple names, who often go by nicknames. We believe one ancestor known as Gertruyt/etc was actually named Anna Margaret.

    1. Hi Linnie, Germans typically gave their children a first name that was a saints’ name as an act of religious piety and a second ‘Rufname’ or ‘call-name’ that was used on a day-to-day basis. So you might see a family with sons called Johann Martin and Johann Georg, neither goes by Johann, instead going by Martin and Georg (then there might be another son Georg Johann who actually does go by Johann!). I don’t think I’ve seen Margarethe/Margaret become Gertrude, though Margarethe does get shortened to Grethe/Grete/Gretl, which I supposed then could be transformed into Gertrude! I would take a look at the index to the journal NAMES and see if there are any articles about German nicknames that might provide some clarity. You can find the journal here: https://www.americannamesociety.org/the-journal/. Good luck!

  7. So many nicknames! My ancestor, Clement Drew b. 1775 married three times: (1) Annie/Nancy Tibbetts (2) Nancy Durgin (3) Anna Pratt Stuart. He could lovingly call them all Annie and get away with it.

  8. My grandmother, born 1876, went to Oneonta Normal School where they told her “Nellie” wasn’t a real name. She chose Helen and used that in all legal and formal occasions, but was always known as Nellie to friends and family. Similarly, my aunt married “Harry” but said that wasn’t a dignified name (I’ve often wondered what he thought about that) and was known always in the family as Henry. Until I started doing genealogy I had no idea.

  9. My mother’s name was Carolyn Lyle but was always known as Lyle. Lyle was from her great grandaunt Eliza who also was always known as Lyle. My middle name is also Lyle! My younger brother was named Claude Philip III after his father and grandfather and always known as Rusty.

  10. I have found no records where my 2nd great-grandmother, Polly (Eckel) Randall, 1820-1897, is referred to as anything other than Polly. But there is a photograph floating around the internet which has a label added by a descendant which gives her name as Pauline. I suspect someone didn’t think Polly was elegant enough and did not know the Mary/Polly nickname possibility.

    1. My father and his twin were named Denval and Densal. Often the “a” is replaced with an “i”. My father’s nickname was Denny or Dick, Some think Dick indicates Richard as his first name but, not so in this case. His brother was known as Dude. I have a Great Great Grandmother whose name on a dower release is shown as Nancy Ann.

      Denval is said to be Old Welsh for Donald. That seems appropriate as, except for Perkins I can place in my genealogy (and one instance in England), my R1a1h Y DNA matches are 90% plus with the chiefs and septs of Clan Donald.

  11. I have a grandmother, whose name was Annette, Anne, and Nancy. She was French speaking and Annette seems to the French version of Nancy.

    Also, grandfather, Etienne who is anglicized to Stephen. Pierre to Peter is obvious.

  12. My grandmother always thought her name was Mary Eliza Decker, when using her birth certificate to sign up for Social Security (1940-ish) she discovered the midwife had written Merry Eliza. Her daughter Bette had problems in grade school as the teachers insisted that she was Elizabeth or Betty. On my father’s Sherwood side, his ggrandfather, Ebenezer Enos Sherwood was married, divorced, remarried…each wife had a son they named Ebenezer Enos. My grandfather, Ebenezer Enos was called Zeke, ( his father was Frederick) my dad Eben Enis was called Abie. We trace back to Joab Enos, not sure who changed it to Enis.

  13. The nicknames can be confusing until you figure them out. Possibly not common, but I knew of a Frances that went by France. I’ve also seen Sadie for Sarah/Sally.

    1. For all the common nicknames, there are also plenty of unique ones! I’ve seen Sadie for Sarah as well, but not nearly as often as Sally.

  14. Thank you for your very informative article! Question: My DAVIS family migrated from England to New England in 1634 CE, yet it wasn’t until 1800 CE that middle names were given.

    Have you studied the origins of middle names?

    As far as my family’s genealogy goes, I’m grateful for these middle names since the eldest son of each generation received his mother’s maiden name as his middle name.

    One nickname to add to your list: “Harriets” in my family tree were always listed as “Hatties”.

    1. Yes, it is my understanding that middle names were not common until the 1800s. At first it was quite common to use the maiden name of a female relative or a surname of a related family member as the middle name, which is certainly helpful for genealogists!

  15. Spelling entered into a family mystery. When I started our family tree (long before the internet), I wrote dozens of letters to relatives asking what they knew of the previous generations. I was intrigued by my great great grandfather Ellic Best. He died in the Civil War when my great grandmother was an infant. All the family, including his daughter agreed his name was Ellic Best. But I never could find a soldier from Ohio with that name. It was several years before I found he was named Alexander Best and must have been called Ellic or Alec. In hindsight I should have guessed but I thought it was just another “odd” old name not a nickname.

    1. Alternative spellings can definitely throw you for a loop, particularly when you find a record with an odd spelling before one with the more traditional spelling!

  16. My husband’s family is large and full of nicknames. One name used by brothers and another by wife. What a struggle for me to learn when I met them!

  17. I try to include nicknames whenever I’m doing my genealogy. How else would later generations know they needed to check alternate names? Two glaring examples in my lines are great-great grandparents. One, born Samantha Ann Twitchell (1852 – 1938) is buried as Mackie McClure. Our guess is that one of her brothers couldn’t say “Samantha”, and her nickname arose. A great-great grandfather is Alonzo Silas Hollister (1847 – 1909), always called “Charlie”. Local newspapers referred to him as “Charlie” or “Charles” – presuming that was his proper name, resulting in the incorrect names to be recorded in a variety of places. Why the nickname “Charlie”? Who knows? Even my grandparents couldn’t explain!

    1. Yes, I try to include nicknames when I come across them, too. Some of the obvious ones (Jim for James, Bob for Robert) I might leave out but if I come across something like “Mackie” for Samantha, it’s definitely making it into my notes!

  18. Thank you, Hallie, for an thoughtful look into a subject of endless fascination. Thank you, too, for the link to the journal NAMES, to which I subscribed on the spot.

    A previous commenter inquired if “Margaret” (derived from French, via Ancient Greek, from the Old Persian for “pearl”) and “Gertrude” could be the same name. The latter name incorporates the Germanic roots *ger- “spear” and *thrud- “strength.” The sound slide Hallie describes–where abbreviations and slippery spelling morph into the phonetic equivalent of another name–seems to be what happened here.

    1. Hi Julie, thank you for your comment! It looks like there are some fascinating articles in NAMES and I am hoping to have more time to peruse it, myself!

  19. Dicey (for a slave) turned out to be a shortened Ladocia, probably by way of Docie. (This was in South Carolina).

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