Should you skip the formal name?I know a sweet little boy named Nate – not Nathan or Nathaniel.  The naming of just-Nate apparently caused some consternation among the extended family, who felt he needed a formal name.

The parents had their reasons, and their reasons made a lot of sense.

So much, that while I’m very pro-formal name, the arrival of young Nate inspired me to make the case for using the name that you love, even if it is usually considered a diminutive.

Of course, your kiddo can still have tons of nicknames. Pumpkin, Cookie, and Sweetie Pie, Slugger and Champ all remain options, no matter what you write on the birth certificate.

To be clear, I’m not talking about choosing a nickname-proof name, though much of what I’ve listed applies to choices like Mia and Piper, Mason and Jordan.

I’m talking about putting a commonly accepted diminutive for a well-established given name on the birth certificate – Tom for Thomas or Kate for Katherine, or yes, Nate for Nathaniel.

Read on for nine reasons why short and sweet can actually be the better choice.

9.  Life is complicated enough without explaining your given name.

Josie called Josie has one less thing to explain than Josephine called Josie at, well, everywhere. The doctor, the bank, the first day of school …

The hardest question she’ll ever field is whether Josie is short for something – and that’s easily answered with one syllable: no.

While I don’t believe that explaining your preferred name is a tremendous burden, it might be wearying to some parents.  If that’s you, why not avoid the hassle?

8.  It can help sidestep arguments over undesirable nicknames.

Let’s say you love Vince, but can’t stand the thought of your son answering to Vinny.  Putting Vincent on his birth certificate opens the door to either possibility.  Naming him Vince makes your wishes clear.

7.  You love the nickname, but you’re lukewarm on the traditional formal version.

Maybe you’re mad about Kate and Bess for your twin daughters.  But Katherine and Elizabeth leave you cold.  What do you do?  Consider alternatives – Katharine and Elisabeth? Katrina and Bernadette?

Maybe you just use the names you really love, and call your girls Kate and Bess.

6.  It’s happened before.

Naysayers might dismiss nickname-names as too unconventional – another creative naming excess of the twenty-first century.

That’s not historically accurate. The pendulum has swung from formal-name-with-nickname to just-nickname and back again over the generations.  Back in 1913, Fred, Jack, and Joe were in the US Top 100 for boys. Willie, Betty, Jennie, Fannie, Carrie, and Hattie ranked in the Top 100 for girls.

I know successful women named Cindy – not Cynthia – and Cathy- not Catherine – who never missed having a formal name. They’re not alone.

5.  It is part of the natural evolution of names.

Other names have migrated from affectionate diminutive to independent name over the years.  Today a Sarah called Sadie or Sally would be a surprise, even though both names are originally pet forms of Sarah.  And when is the last time you met a Nancy who was actually Ann?

Names might still sound like a nickname to you, but in a few generations, they’ll be so separate as to be two completely distinct choices.

4.  It can completely change the vibe of a name.

John is a classic, saintly and regal. Jack is a livelier choice, a sprightly name worn by Jack Sparrow and Jack Be Nimble.

Theo seems upbeat and modern, while Theodore is the chubby chipmunk.  It is such a divide that they can feel like two completely separate names.

Parents who love John or Theodore might not care for Jack or Theo, and parents who embrace Jack and Theo might be left cold by the more formal options.

3.  It might match siblings’ names or your surname better.

If your first two children are June and Finn, a formal name with a nickname might feel out of place. Dex might be better than Dexter, or Kit better than Christopher.

Or maybe your last name is Kukowski or DiMatteo or Baumgartner.  If your surname is a mouthful, something you’re forever spelling, it might make sense to keep it simple with your child’s given name.

2. It fits the style of the day.

Nate will grow up with boys called Cole and Gage. This makes Nate feel more like a given name that he might have a few decades ago. I’ve also met a baby Jake – not Jacob, and I know more boys named Jack than John.  Regardless of origins, Nate is a good fit with a particular style of name popular in the 2020s.

1.  You might just plain love the informal version of the name.

Am I cheating here?  I’ve mentioned this with Bess and Kate, but I think it goes beyond liking the nickname better than the formal name.

It is possible to like the conventional longer form of a name, but just plain feel that your child’s name is Lou, not Louise.  While there’s something to be said for hedging your bets and putting Louise on her birth certificate, I think trusting your instincts matters, too.  So it is fine to skip Louise if you’re sure your girl is truly a Lou.

First published on September 14, 2013, this post was updated and revised on February 20, 2020.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I don’t feel strongly about either nickname use or traditional full name use. Go with the name you love! There are plenty of good reasons to use a shortened version or the nickname. I think I would easily brush aside any comments made on my child’s name that criticized either choice.

  2. Although we don’t have any issues with the name Alexander, we gave our son the shortened version Alex instead for his first name. Our decision was based on which version would work better with his last name, which is one-syllable and spelled with only two letters. No matter how we pronounced it or wrote it, Alexander just seemed too long, too pretentious, and out of balance with his short last name. The shortened version of Alex matched his last name better.

    A friend once told me there are some benefits to having a shortened or nickname version name as your legal first name. His name is Chuck instead of Charles. Therefore, he knew whenever he received anything in the mail addressed to Charles, he didn’t even need to open it; it was junk mail and he could just toss it (he didn’t even need to take precautions about shredding his junk mail, since it was the wrong name on the mail anyway). Also, if anyone called him on the phone and asked for Charles, he knew it was a telemarketer or a scammer. He said his name saved him a lot of time by helping him eliminate the not-important people from his life.

  3. For me, the deciding factor on whether I’d use a diminutive for a first name or a formal name with plans to use a nickname all depends on if I love the formal name as equally as I love the nickname. I adore Edie but not Edith or Eden. But Theodore nn Teddy is also top on my list.

    P.S. I actually have a sister Sara nn Sally (age 24), she was named after our great grandmother who was also a Sara nn Sallie.

  4. So I’m Jennie and I like that my parents just went with Jennie, rather than “Jennifer, nickname Jennie”. Though it bugged me as a kid when I switched to secondary school and they just automatically put Jennifer on all the paperwork. I’ve had doctors offices do that too. Though I don’t think the immigration people ever had a problem when I moved countries and later became a naturalized citizen.

    I know a Nate who is Nathaniel. He’s almost 7 and he recently said something about how he needs to learn how to spell / write his full name – since it’s so much easier to write Nate and that’s what he goes by. Nate seems fine as a full name to me.

    My son’s Kindergarten class has a Josie and a Josephine. I’m not sure if Josie is really Josephine too. My son mentioned one of them being Josie B (or whatever initial it is) so it’s complicated either way. 😛

  5. When we decided to name our daughter Trudy and not Gertrude it was because we were naming for my grandma who went her whole life being Trudy, never Gertie or Gertrude. She hated her name. I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to honor someone who hated her name even though I rather like Gertrude as a name and I like the nick-name options associated with it. I just couldn’t give Grandma’s hated formal name to my child, but I also couldn’t find any G names I liked. So we settled on Trudy, just Trudy, and it felt right, if unconventional. When she came she was totally a Trudy, she’s a spunky goofball, a firecracker who I cannot picture with the ultra-serious Gertrude for her name. The only thing I’m worried about is whether this locks us in to nickname names for future children.

    1. The mother of my best friend in high school is Trudy. Just Trudy. Her siblings have more traditional names like Mark and John. I think you are free to go wherever you want with future names.

  6. Theodore is the chubby chipmunk. Simon, a name I wish I heard more often, is the bespectacled one.

    I rather enjoyed this post, as I have struggled with the dilemma myself. I notice that giving a diminutive or nickname as the formal name seems pretty common in Australia.

  7. I am all over this! I am not much for nick names at all… I am more of the “name them what you are going to call them”. In fact I don’t like nn so much my friends tried Nikki and Nick on me and I was all was the precocious child saying “No my name is Nicole”. I am drawn to nn proof names these days, Heath, Phoebe, and shorten versions of other names Gus but not August, Winnie but not Winifred. I worry about long names I love, Juliet, being shortened to something I dislike, Julie. Overall our top list of names is full of short nn proof names topped off by a few names like Juliet that I love so much that I have come to accept that she might choose one day to be Uli or something. I would chose to put Gus, or Winnie on a birth certificate before I put a longer version that I was luke warm about just to get to the name I liked. I am probably an outlier in the name world as most people love long listful names with quarky short versions, but I am a simple girl just wants things to be simple.