In Defense of Nicknames: Ten Reasons to Embrace Nickname-Rich Names

In Defense of Nicknames

I’m a huge fan of nickname-rich names.  My daughter’s name is a study in reinventing family names.  Failing to figure out a preferred short form for my son bothers me still, more than eight years later.  And I legally altered my own name out of frustration that I didn’t have any options to change up my super-short birth name.

Still, we live in an informal age.  It’s easy to argue that you should pen your child’s everyday name on the birth certificate.  And plenty of kids answer to Isabella, thanks, not Izzy or Ibby or Bella, proving that even the longest names don’t require any abbreviation.

A few words on terms:

  • Strictly speaking, nicknames are things like Pumpkin or Red. 
  • Trixie for Beatrix or Billy for William is a diminutive.
  • Or maybe a hypocoristic – especially if your daughter’s name is Elizabeth but you call her Bunny.
  • While English isn’t big on them, other languages tend to favor elaborations, like Antonella for Antonia.

There’s more than one way to get to a nickname, and there are those that children outgrow, as well as ones that stay with us for life.

But back to the question at hand: why should you choose a formal name, and then immediately proceed to call your child something entirely other?

10.  You’ll make room for cute, even silly short forms.

Not sure if Lulu works on a district attorney?  Fretting that Freddie won’t be taken seriously someday?  Going with Louisa and Frederick on the birth certificate is a fallback.

9.  They signal the gravity of a formal occasion.

In religious and academic ceremonies, a formal name can emphasize the gravity of the occasion.  Make no mistake – Callie can earn her PhD and walk down the aisle, too, but Caroline is the equivalent of a special occasion dress.

8.  It can honor a loved one while still making space for individual identity.

Naming a child after grandma Betsy is simpler if her given name is Elizabeth.  You, too, can write Elizabeth on the birth certificate but call your little girl Eliza.  It can even make a family name dance.  Katherine might always the firstborn girl’s name in your family, but Kiki is your daughter.

7.  Formal names can soften a trendy or risky name.

Let’s say you love Jax, but fear that your son will hate it some day.  Naming him John or James Xavier leaves space for Jax to keep his super cool appellation – or change it to Jack or Jamie or James down the road.

6.  Diminutives signal familiarity and affection.

When I’m home, I answer to other names.  Those names are subject to elaboration and revision.  If your family is a nicknaming family, nickname-rich possibilities are welcome.  (Though, for the record, if you’re a nicknaming family, there’s very little that will prevent nicknames.)

On a more practical note, a telemarketer can only call you William.  Your friends and loved ones will know if it is Will, Billy, or Bud.

5.  It can eliminate repeating name drama.

A very popular name rich with nickname options might be easier to wear than one without.  Two classmates named Ava will always be Ava S. and Ava R.  But two classmates named Isabella might be Isabella and Bella.

This is even more useful in family situations, where siblings want to pass down the same set of family names.  You and your sister can both names your boys after grandpa Robert, as long as one kiddo is Robbie and the other is Bo.

4.  It can make an unusual family name, or an ethnic name more wearable.

Want to embrace your heritage, but give your child a wearable name for everyday use?  Plenty of imports offer this option.  The Indian name Vivek shortens to Vik; Nikhil to Nik.

In other cases, the possibility of a nickname can make an unusual name more accessible.  Considering using grandma’s maiden name for a daughter, but worried that Adair will object?  She can always answer to Addie.

3.  You might be wrong about not being the nickname type.

I suspect that first-time parents settle on nickname-proof choices, only to be handed a cuddly little baby and realize that more natural to call him Booboo Bear than Bryson.  We learn a lot about ourselves when we become parents.  Even if you’ve never bestowed an affectionate nickname on a friend or pet, a baby can be different.  Suddenly you’re calling your daughter Ry-Ry instead of Riley.

2.  Nickname-rich names leave options for growth and change.

An adorable baby Charlie is one thing.  But as your son grows up, he might feel more like a Charles.  We’ll have to see what happens in the UK, with all of those babies called Alfie.  Will some of them want to be Alfred?

But it isn’t just about growing out of an informal name.  Sometimes it is about change.  Maggie can be a college professor just as easily as Margaret.  But what if your Margaret-called-Maggie just plain prefers Greta or Margo?  The possibility of reinvention is the gift of a nickname-rich name.

Likewise, a nickname-rich name lets you look at your son William and realize he isn’t a Liam – he’s a Will.

1.  Nickname-rich names preserve choice for your child.

It’s tough to make over a mini skirt, but a ball gown has lots of fabric to work with.  The same is true of mini names versus more elaborate ones.  Your Alexandra can shift identities without ever changing her legal name.  That’s not so easy if you name her Lexi.

Where do you stand on nicknames?  Do you prefer nickname-rich choices, or would you rather have your child’s everyday name on the birth certificate?  Does your given name have nicknames?

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31 Comments

What do you think about using the formal name Juliana (Juli-ah-na) even if we plan on calling our daughter Annie? My husband says it’s not intuitive, but I don’t see much difference between an Elizabeth being a Libby, for example, which isn’t strange to me. The problem is I love both names (Juliana and Annie), but I worry that Annie sounds too little-girlish for an entire lifetime. Would love to hear your feedback!

I’ve got a Victor and a Francisco at my house and we use Vic maybe 25% of the time for Victor and V another 25%. Francisco is Frankie 95% of the time! I love that they have some choices within the name I gave them, names they can dial up or down in formality depending on their own preferences throughout their lives. And I get a little thrill when I see their full formal names written out (Victor David and Francisco Martin) – big names for little guys.

I adore this post, and I’m completely and utterly convinced you’re right. Would you consider creating a list of nickname-rich names that you like?

We love the name Mila for a little girl. We really don’t like Mimi, though. It’s what my mother in law goes by with the grandchildren and we aren’t exactly close. As much as I love Mila in it’s full form, can you think of any other nicknames for it besides Mimi? I feel like if there’s a different option, perhaps she/her friends/teachers/etc would be more likely to stay away from Mimi.

Do you want a nickname at all? It’s MUCH less common for kids to have nicknames today, and Mila just plain doesn’t need one. Your other option is to choose a longer Mil- name – Milena, Millicent – and use Mila as a nickname. But my best guess is that if you named your daughter Mila, she’d never be anything other than Mila. Well, YOU can call her Pumpkin or Honey or Blueberry, but I doubt her teachers would! 🙂

That’s very comforting to hear. As we still try to decide a name, nicknames have been a reason to avoid certain ones. Mila has been a long time favorite, but we were worried about Mimi. We love Elaina and Eliana (the meaning, the sounds, the fact that they have an E like our son Everett) and we like the potential nickname Ellie. But we also wanted to honor my mom in some way (her name is Geraldine and she even requested to not give that name to a baby! And we decided the middle name will be after my husband’s grandma – Mary/Maria) We like Calla (Calla lillies being the flowers she carried in her wedding, and a symbol for Virgin Mary whom my mom prays to daily), but not Callie. And we like Scarlett (my mom’s birthstone is a ruby and my husband likes this better than Ruby), but don’t like the potential nicknames Scar or Carly. Of course we need to narrow our name choices down period, but frustrating to have so many we love and not like possible nicknames. So, it’s very good to know nicknames are not as common today! THANK YOU!

I tried very, very hard to think through all potential nicknames and avoid any names that had nicknames I didn’t like. My daughter’s name, Emeline, was a huge concern for me because I think Emmy sounds . . . less smart. Fortunately, she hasn’t ever had her name shortened (yet). I realize that at some point you lose control of the nn battle–especially if your child plays sports (my baby brother went from Ethan to Puma in a baffling turn-of-events and now wants to name his firstborn son Puma, after himself). Until that happens, though, I stress to all and sundry that my children’s names are not to be shortened. Am I uptight? A little bit. I mean, my Oskar would make the cutest Ozzie in the world, but the name Oskar is so perfect that why would I want something else used instead??

DH, my 2 daughters, and I all have names that don’t lend themselves to diminutives. It wasn’t planned, it just happened that way. I’m the only one (in the extended family, actually) that doesn’t have a slew of nicknames.

My only thought to add to this debate is, in these days of computerized everything, if you chose to call your child something not related to his/her first name, whether it’s a nn, a mn, or something else, be prepared to be gracious when schools, the DMV, etc., insist on using his/her proper first name on everything, and teach your child his/her proper first name, even if you don’t use it.

A very nice point. Clio knows her full name, but I was VERY nervous when we flew at that one particular age. She was just barely old enough to hold her own boarding pass and say her name if they ask – which, admittedly, they don’t always do. She got through it like a champ, but I did wonder what would happen if she just … didn’t.

Something that makes me insane: when we go to Disney World, everyone calls me Amy. It’s a crazy expensive family vacation, and they go to all of this trouble to do all of these little things right – but they’ve never thought to add a database field asking what their guests want to be called. My dentist, my bank – I do not expect them to remember that I prefer my middle name. But the imagineers at Disney? I feel like they should’ve thought about this one … Surely other people have a similar reaction.

I’m a Kathryn/Katy! I also thought I would start using Kate at some point but it never happened. I guess I will be Katy when I’m 85:)

#8 is very true for my family! As a fourth-generation Kathryn/Katherine (both spelling have been used, strangely), it’s nice that each of us got our own nickname: Kate, Kay, Kathy, Katy.

It’s one of the things I love about names like this – you can share something, and still have your own space, too.

Having been Katherine called Katie my entire life, I don’t really feel a connection to the more formal Katherine. When I was younger I thought when I got older I might like to be called a more “grown up” sounding Kate, I tried to change it in college but it didn’t stick. Katie has always been my name and it seems it always will, at least until the day I’m called Mom.

My own naming style tends to shy away from the more formal nickname-rich names and jumps straight to the nickname. I prefer Andie over Alexandra and Rand over Randall.

My son was named after a TV character’s last name and has an initial only for a first name
My sister and sister in law decided to call him by his middle initial like the character’s first name long before he was here. After he was born he has been called that once. Often he is “his first name-man” due his size. To my husband he’s “buddy” and me he is “lovey” or “lovey Lou”. He responds to lovey more than his given name.

My husband and I named our baby son a long, formal name similar to William. We correct people who call him Will or Billy. However, we call him Bubbers almost exclusively in every day life. He doesn’t know his real name. 🙂

My teen’s name is a #4. Honestly, she prefers her full name… but the spelling it can be confusing and it has around 5 “legitimate” pronunciations so a lot of adults (but not kids!) automatically give-up and call her by a nickname.

My daughter has around a million nicknames, it just seems like there’s something about her personality that leads to lots of silly names: Mamie, Meeka, Maisie, Marilla, Mei-Mei, Maria Pia… meanwhile her brother is pretty much just Peter.

I am a sucker for nickname-rich names having grown up with a fairly rigid name myself. My inlaws on the other hand went out of their way to give their children “absolutely nickname proof names”. When their youngest was born they started calling her a diminutive of her middle name because they realized a little late that they regret the lack of options. As someone who had to force a diminutive out of my tailored name, I will be giving my children a longer name that they can play with. If they don’t like it, they can name their own children something short 😉

It’s definitely true that if people are into nicknames they will find a way to make one out of any name. My name is Brooke, which seems fairly nickname proof. When I was young I was often called Brooke-chook, chook or chooka, and over the years I’ve also been called Brooklyn, Brooklet or just plain B. These days most of my close friends call me Brookie. I guess where there’s a will there’s a way, so I understand why a name with plenty of cool nickname options is a good idea 🙂

My daughter has a nickname-rich name, but so far none of them has seemed right. At this point it seems more likely that she’ll end up going by either her full first name, her middle name, or some other unrelated name than by a nickname or diminutive of her first name. I’m one of those people you describe who surprised herself by wanting to have a nickname for each child – I didn’t think I was the nickname type but apparently I am! And like you, it bothers me a bit that no nickname has arisen organically thus far for my daughter – if I started using one now it would feel rather forced, whereas that was never the case with my son. I guess we shall see how it all pans out.

I have chosen Charlie as a nickname with the longer name of Caroline. I don’t love other Char- names so but, Caroline is so smart and elegant and it comes from the same root as Charlotte and Charles so I figured, why not?

All of your points are well-considered. I, myself, have a short two-syllable name, but stopped going by Raya in grade 3 and started going by Rae. I even told people that Rae was short for Rachel because I hated my birth name so much. But when I started college, I did go back to Raya because it felt more grown up. I would like my child, should I ever have any, to have that choice as well.

My dad hated being called “Denny” as a kid so he made sure I had a nickname-proof name. But I hated not having any options for changing my name up! (I’m seriously thinking about adding onto my first name to make it more versatile.) As a result, I made sure my kids have names with at least one possible nickname. I guess you can never tell what the next generation will prefer.

My problem as a mom is that I’d really hate to give a child a name that I carefully chose, only to have him or her use a nickname I disliked. There are very many nickname rich names that I love in their full state but I abhore the nicknames. Joseph is a prime example of this. I absolutely love then the name but it would undoubtedly become Joe at some point, which I really can’t stand.

That’s definitely a potential issue, Shannon! I love Josephine, but she’d be Posy to me. Except that I really don’t like Josie, and it is easy to imagine that nickname sticking instead. Always a risk …

As Mom to an Alexander and an Evangeline, part of what attracted us to the names was the flexibility of the names. My husband and I are both people who “reinvented” ourselves, so to speak, at various times in our lives. My husband went by a nickname that had nothing to do with his real name starting a bit in high school, and when he left for college made a fairly clean break to the nickname. He added it as a second middle name when we married.

I went by my nickname (Shari) for most of my life (excepting 6th grade for some reason) until I married. Our last name also starts with “Sha”, so I started going by my full name to break up the alliteration. If I had only be Shari, I wouldn’t have had the option.

We had planned to call our son Alex before he was born, but he turned out to personality-wise be a Xander. As he’s hitting those teen years, he’s chosen to move more toward Alex or his full name. And he can do that as he sees fit. We left it up in the air whether our daughter was going to be an Eva or an Evie, and she has definitively been an Evie so far (so much so if you call her Evangeline, she’ll tell you, “No Evangeline, I Eeee—vieeee!”) but I know that as she grows, she may opt for another nickname or choose to go by her full name.

There’s nothing wrong with not having a nickname, but we prefered the flexibility that longer names provide.

I do not understand the insistence on nicknames or diminutives. My mother is a Virginia who goes by Ginger and my brother is a Douglas who goes by Doug, but other than that my parents were not big on them. My sisters Eleanor and Caroline have never gone by anything other than their given names, and that seems particularly uncommon for an Eleanor. And don’t eve think about calling me something other than Olivia. I hate liv and livvy. They are absolutely awful. However, I actually like some dimunitives or nicknames for Eleanor like leonor and Nora.

I think it is combination of personal preference and experience. Even though most of my family has long since abandoned the Italian naming convention – firstborn son is named after the paternal grandfather, second after the maternal grandfather, and so on and so on until all the cousins are called Anthony – the tradition left its mark. Almost no one in my mother’s family answers to their given name, at least not amongst family. The generation just younger than me – kids in their early 20s now – are reversing the trend, and it will be interesting to see what happens as they become parents.

My dad’s family isn’t necessarily heavily into nicknames, but my dad was a habitual nicknamer.

The result? Even though my siblings and I all have given names that appear to be nickname-proof, you would never figure out our actual given names by listening to a conversation around the dinner table.

Good points, all. However, as someone deliberately given a rock-solid, nickname-proof name, I have never had to personally deal with any of these situations. And boy, am I glad. There’s something to be said for simplicity.

Yes on #5! I’ve been explaining to my Henry that if the other Henry we’ve been spotting around town ends up in his Kindergarten class, that will make his name “Henry B.” He didn’t seem to like that idea. So I told him that the other option is that he could be Harry, Hank or Hal. He didn’t like that idea at all either. 😛 I can see that being something that a teenager might embrace more than a 5 year old.

I am a fan of the longer more formal name on the birth certificate. I’d put Frederick on there, even if I was planning to use Fred or Freddie. I guess Alfie could shorten to the more formal Alf, but with Alfred he has the option of Fred too. I guess Charlie’s ‘nickname’ might end up being Charles, if he wanted a formal option.

It’s a tricky one.
In my tiny (think 20 children in the only primary/elementary school) hippy town full of very strange names, my brother managed to be one of three J_s. There were no other children who shared a name.

It’s a short name that doesn’t have an obvious nicknames. One J_ had a different spelling (and was older – no longer in primary school), so he was often referred to as J_ +Last name if it wasn’t clear from context which J_ was meant.
The other J_ was in my brother’s year and went by J_+ initial or J_ + last name. My brother went by J_ + (first part of our hyphenated) last name or J_-J_. We’d called him J_-J_ all his life, but when he was a teenager he insisted we made it up to differentiate him from other J_s, and refused to respond to it.
He’s mostly over it now, but it’s definitely not how he’d introduce himself. His friends tend to elaborate his name – J_-boss etc.