Analysis · Name Lists

Formal Names that Started Out as Nicknames

Let’s talk about nicknames. Currently, it seems that one of the biggest disagreements in baby naming centers revolves around the question of giving children formal names for the nicknames their parents will actually call them. For example, parents that want to call their child Jack or Ellie may be considering whether or not to put John or Eleanor on the birth certificate. I think there are good arguments both for choosing a formal option and not. The children may never use Margaret and William, so it makes sense just to call them Maggie and Liam. Alternatively, Liz hates her name and spends her whole life wishing she were Elizabeth, whether she’d prefer to go by no nickname or a different one entirely. Coworkers might be mildly confused to meet a Dan who’s not a Daniel, or they might call a Christopher “Chris” against his will. That’s not even going into what looks better on a resume or next to a professional title.

Here’s the thing, though. So many names that are now considered traditional formal options began their name lives as nicknames. When was the last time you met an Alison whose formal name is Alice, or a Megan that’s short for Margaret? A Robin who’s really Robert? Chances are that you haven’t met one. Some names have stood alone for so long that we’ve forgotten they’re nicknames. I guarantee that as time stretches on, more names will lose their diminutive status and be acceptable formal options. Some of them will even have their own nicknames!

Here is a list of formal names that either started out as nicknames or derived from them! Note that just because it’s a nickname doesn’t necessarily mean it’s shorter; certain endings like “ina” and “illa” turned names into their “cutesy” forms.

  • Aidan / Aiden – Anglicized spellings of Irish Aodhán, the pet form of Aodh. If Aodh means “fire,” then Aiden means “little fire.”
  • Alison – Medieval Norman-French nickname for a name that eventually developed into what we recognize as Alice.
  • Angelina – Via Angela, a Latin-derived name for “angel, messenger.”
  • Anita – Spanish and Portuguese equivalent of “Annie,” via Ana + “-ita,” a popular baby name in the U.S. until the early 2000s.
  • Antoinette – Feminine diminutive form of Antoine, the French form of Anthony.
  • Charlotte – Feminine form of Charlot, a traditional French nickname for Charles. Over centuries of (especially royal) use, Charlotte and her Latinized sister Caroline have served as the classic standalone women’s versions for the original name.
  • Colette – Short for Nicolette, itself an elongated nickname for Nicole.
  • Colin – One of Colin’s possible origins is as a medieval nickname for Nicholas, though this falls under the category of “when was the last time you heard it as a nickname?”
  • Daisy – While Daisy’s status as a flower name has let it stand alone for well over a century in some cases, in other cases it’s a nickname for Marguerite or Margaret. ‘Marguerite’ is the French word for ‘daisy.’
  • Ethel – A lot easier to swallow than longer Ethel names like Etheldreda and Ethelinda, however cool they are. Ethel is the Old English version of Germanic Adal (“noble,”) an element found in popular names like Adeline and Alice.
  • Ginger – Often short for Virginia, though you can also find it on its own because of the spice.
  • Heidi – Short for Adelheid, though very few people still give their children the formal version in the U.S. That said, the English equivalent to Adelheid is Adelaide, which *is* popular!
  • Jackson – Meaning “son of Jack,” this is a patronymic surname deriving from a nickname for John.
  • Juanita – Spanish equivalent of “Janie,” via Juana + “-ita.” Juanita was a popular baby name in the U.S. up until about 20 years ago.
  • Henrietta – Feminine form of Henry via the French Henriette, a pet form of Henri created by adding the “-ette” suffix.
  • Keenan – Anglicized spelling of Cianán, a nickname for Cian (Kean).
  • Kieran – Anglicized spelling of Ciarán, a nickname for Ciar (Keir).
  • Liam – Irish nickname of William. I do know of at least one William who’s called Liam, but this goes either way.
  • Lucille – French, from Latin Lucilla, the pet form of Lucia.
  • Marcellus – More or less, “Little Marcus.”
  • Margot – French nickname for Marguerite / Margaret. In Anglophone circles, I’ve never heard anyone discuss using it as a nickname. Popular alternative spellings include Margo (U.S.) and Margaux (France).
  • Max – Short for Maximilian, Maxwell, and other names.
  • Megan – Welsh nickname for Margaret that was popular for the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st until Maisie and Margot started trending.
  • Molly – This one’s a famous nickname for Mary, but it’s usually just Molly these days.
  • Natasha – Outside of Eastern Europe and Russia, Natasha often seems to remain separate from Natalia. Natalia is currently much more popular for babies born in English-speaking countries,
  • Nina – Short for many names including Antonina, but when was the last time you met a Nina that was short for anything?
  • Nixon – Means “son of Nick.” To be fair, Nixon is a lot more first name-friendly than, say, Nicholason.
  • Priscilla – Ancient Roman nickname/diminutive for Prisca, the feminine of Priscus.
  • Robin started off as a medieval nickname for Robert, but is now a classic gender-neutral option in the U.S. and U.K. Popular namesakes include Robin Hood, Robin Williams, and the bird.
  • Sadie is a vintage nickname for Sarah that now outranks its mother name! Even nicknames go through cycles…a few decades ago, Sally was Sarah’s top pet form.
  • Zelda – When not a Yiddish feminine form of Zelig (“Happy”), it’s traditionally short for Griselda, an medieval literary name from Chaucer and Boccaccio that was briefly popular between the 1970s and 1990s.

I didn’t even mention any nicknames for Elizabeth, which offers several classic options that are now formal names: Lily, Lillian, Ella, Elsa, Lisa, Elise, and more. Then there’s Leo, which has a long standalone history but also shortens to Leonard, Leopold, Leodis. Sophie is often a pet name for Sophia (occasionally, also Sophronia), but it’s also it’s own, classic (French) name. The possibilities are endless!

Do you have any any favorite formal names that started out as nicknames? Can you think of any others? Let me know! And whether you decide you’d prefer to put a “formal” name or “nickname” on the birth certificate, know that a) you’re not alone, and b) compromises are possible! The names on this list are perfect middle-of-the road options to assuage both sides of this debate.

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