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In Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women, four sisters are named Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth respectively, but later I realized their full names are Josephine, Margaret, Amy and Elizabeth respectively. The shortened names and the full ones are so different.

And the same Elizabeth in Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice is shortened as Eliza.

William is known to be shortened as Bill. Bill Gates then is William Gates? William Shakespeare is Bill Shakespeare?

My head swims, please anyone, tell me the rule behind this nomenclature.

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    By the way: in English, the first name is called the given name, and when we shorten it in this way, the English word for the result is "nickname". – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 28 '17 at 3:39
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not about learning English. – user3169 Jul 28 '17 at 5:11
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    @user3169 I think it's on topic, myself, insofar as we can come up with some pattern that at least accounts for certain types of names. The only answer so far talks of there being none, but one can at least depend on English phonotactics to rule out certain substrings. ;) I may come back to formulate an answer later if I can. There's a good Homestar Runner cartoon on this that I remember... – Luke Sawczak Jul 28 '17 at 5:21
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    A Margaret could be nicknamed Peg or Peggy in addition to Meg, Maggie, Mags. Language is not anarchy. It's mob rule. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 28 '17 at 10:49
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To summarize, there are no hard and fast rules, but there certainly are patterns that can guide us now and then. Each language naturally has its own patterns, so to my mind this is a legitimate question about English.


From short name to long name

There certainly is no way to guess what someone's full name is just from their short name, simply because information is missing. Meg contains few of the letters of Margaret. So you have to memorize it. And even English speakers don't know all of these connections. Just recently I was wondering if Curdie was short for another name after reading The Princess and the Goblin. (It isn't.)

And even when you do know the full list, you can guess wrong! If I meet someone named Jo, I don't know whether her full name is Josephine, Joanne, or Joanna. The original information from the full name just isn't recoverable. No doubt this is the same in any language.


From long name to short name

However, the other direction, trying to determine the short name based on the long name, is a little more promising. I will stress what the others have stressed so far: there are no hard and fast rules. But there are tendencies.

In the bizarre Homestar Runner cartoon "do over", there's a tongue-in-cheek sequence where Strong Bad takes the names Ashley and Anthony and tries to create nicknames for them:

Well, Ash and Ant, or Ley and Thony, or Shle and Ntho, or whatever you like to be called...

English speakers instantly recognize the last four as wrong. But they're wrong for interesting reasons.

  • Ntho for Anthony has a syllable-initial cluster /nθ/, which is impossible in English phonotactics. You can instantly rule out any short form of that kind!

  • Shle for Ashley can also be ruled out. We do allow /ʃl/ at the start of some borrowed names (e.g. Shlomo). But Shle has been broken at the wrong place in the word. It begins at a syllable coda instead of an onset. That is either disallowed or extremely rare.

  • Ley for Ashley is very unlikely. Why? Because it's formed from an unstressed syllable in Ashley (and one that sounds like just a diminutive suffix1 — more on that later). Short names are usually based on the primary stressed syllable: Rob for Robert, Bert for Bertrand, Randy for Randall. (There are exceptions, such as ElizabethBeth from the secondary stressed syllable or even → El from an unstressed syllable.)

  • For this reason, Ash is the correct and probably the only possible short form for Ashley.

  • Thony for Anthony is unlikely for a more complex reason. The correct form is Tony, which is a name originally more popular among Italians and hence based on the Italian version Antonio: where the stress is on -to- (ruling out Ant) and it has no h (ruling out Thony).

  • For this reason, Ant (sometimes Anth) corresponds to the Anglicized pronunciation Anthony.2

We can also add the use of a diminutive suffix. A common one is -y / -ie. This is what allows for Ellie (← Elizabeth), Jordie (← Jordan), Billy (← William), Sandy (← Sandra), Debbie (← Deborah), Danny (← Daniel), and many more. This is also why any English speaker might assume that Curdie is a short form, perhaps for Curtis: there is some regularity in the system!

It's true that some of these diminutives may be appended to an existing short form (e.g. it could be DanielDanDanny), but some of them replace parts of the longer name. To my knowledge, we have no short form Jord or Sand.

So those are some general guidelines for how to clip names to make shorter ones. We might be able to understand Josephine, for example. The primary stressed syllable Jo is inherently the most likely. I could also buy Feeny, taken from the secondary stressed syllable plus a diminutive. But the unstressed syllable Seph would be impossible.

But finally we must return to the observation that many names are not guessable. Among the most infamous are Margaret → Peg, William → Bill, and Richard → Dick. These names were crystallized long ago according to the phonology of an older English or even of a different language. (A linguist can see a reason for /w/ → /b/ or /m/ → /p/, but most of us are better off just to memorize these names.) I suspect that the older the name, the more unpredictable it is and the more variants it has.

And of course even our guidelines and patterns can be broken wilfully. Names are very personal and come with stories attached to them. P.E.Dant gives the example of Card for a hypothetical Richard who spent time in Costa Rica — and hence goes by the stressed syllable in the Spanish version of his name, Ricardo. There's a method to the madness, but there is madness.


1 Even though etymologically "Ashley" is not a diminutive but two nouns ash + leah.

2 The original name is the Latin Antonius. The h was added in English in the 17th century due to an incorrect connection made with the Greek word anthos.

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Typically a shortened version of a name is a part of the full name.

But as demonstrated by both Beth and Eliza being short for Elizabeth, there's not really any rule about which part of the full name we pull out to make the shortened version. Indeed, besides chopping off either the beginning or the end of a name, we sometimes cut out some part of the middle instead: Elizabeth is also commonly shortened to Liz, or, less commonly, Liza.

The more English names you can memorize, the better you'll be at recognizing shortened versions of names and guessing what the full name is. But without asking the person for sure, you'll still just be guessing. For every Elizabeth who goes by Beth, there's another person whose name is just Beth, not short for anything.

The William > Bill thing is kind of a one-off that you just have to memorize. A quick Google search shows that theories on how that came to be include letter-swapping in the Middle Ages. So William became Will, which then became Bill. A similar pattern happens with Richard being shortened to Rick, which then becomes Dick. So now we have Dick as a shorter version of Richard.

Again, you've just gotta memorize those. There's not really any rules for names.

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  • But what about Betty for Elizabeth? And, well, yes, Rick becomes Dick, except when it's Ricky or Dicky, or R.C. (middle name is "Charles", you see). Then again, really close friends call Richard Card, which is a shortened Ricardo, because when he hung out in Costa Rica, some Ticos started calling him that, and... – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 28 '17 at 3:20
  • . . . and there are Bert, Bert, and Bert -- er, Hubert, Bertram and Bernard, if we're feeling formal. They're probably on their way to meet Rock and Rocky -- that is, Roy and Robert. We call that Robert "Rocky" because we're also friends with a Rob and a Bobby and a Gonzo. You probably know them through Cliff, right? By the way, is Cliff short for Clifford or for Heathcliff? Never mind, I'll ask Gonzo. One thing you have to say about Robert Gonzales -- he never forgets a name. – Gary Botnovcan Jul 28 '17 at 4:21
  • @GaryBotnovcan Oh, you mean "Cube!" Well, it was Hubert originally, but he hated that and insisted on Bert. There was another Bert in our form, though, and it went from Hube to Cube (Don't get me started on what we used to call old Cholmondeley...) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 28 '17 at 4:30
  • I hear that people in English-speaking countries actually do not have real choice to name themselves because the usual given names available are limited, with so many possible repetitions people have to turn to the various shortened forms to make difference. – NanningYouth Jul 28 '17 at 11:41
  • @NanningYouth I'm not sure about no real choice. Any individual doesn't necessarily have a choice because their parents do the naming, but you can always legally change your name in adulthood (not sure about all countries, but in some, at least). But there are tens of thousands of possible names to pick from, some more common than others. Or you can just make one up completely. – cjl750 Jul 28 '17 at 14:15

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