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It makes no sense to me. Dick sounds absolutely nothing like Richard. Other English nicknames confuse me as well. Bob for Robert, Bill for William, Jim for James, though they are still a bit closer to their original than the whole Dick-Richard of it all.

Edit: as someone mentioned in the comments, "Jack" as a nickname for "John" is another interesting one.

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    Bob is a nickname for Robert. Bill comes from William. Probably both involve rhyming slang as in the answer.
    – BillOnne
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 3:22
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    Dick is short for the English, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Irish, Canadian name Richard as well. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 6:27
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    Wait til you get to Jack… which is 'short' for John. Nope, I've never been able to figure that one out either. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 6:41
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    Harry is "short" for Henry (according to Prince Harry/Henry Windsor at least).
    – Tom V
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 12:05
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    And "Peggy" is a nickname for "Margaret". They are even crazier examples but I forget them right now. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 14:06

5 Answers 5

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Dick for Richard, Bob for Robert, Bill for William, and more

It originates from the 12–13th centuries (Middle English), in a time where a lot of people had the same names. Richard was also spelled Rickard, which obviously shortens to Rick (a nickname we still use today). From there, rhyming forms were created, getting us Dick. It also created Hick, which is a nickname that isn't in use today, but it's the origin of the word hick, in addition to last (family) names such as Hickson which are still in use.

The book Christian Names in Local and Family History expands further on this:

We can see immediately how this might give rise to Roberts and Robertson and how the pet form would lead to Robb(s) and Robson and the diminutives to Robbins, Robinson and Robbie. Rhyming forms would produce Dobbs, Dobbin, Dobbinson, Hobbs, Hobson, Hopkins and Hopkinson. Similarly the pet form 'Dodge' for Roger gave rise directly to the surnames Dodge and Dodgson, Hodge and Hodgson, and the diminutives produced Hodgett, Hodgkin and Hodgkinson. Such developments were not confined to the common names nor indeed to male names, and the process is one that is familiar to anybody working on early records. The purpose here though is simply to remind those who are not familiar with such practices what can lie behind latinised forms such as 'Robertus' and 'Ricardus'.

Peg for Margaret

This was created the same way (rhyming) as the other names in this group, but with more intermediary steps. From the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources:

Margaret is the radiconym; take it and cut the name down to the first syllable, and you get Marg. In certain dialects, that r is going to be very lightly pronounced, giving us Mag. Magge (pronounced with two syllables) can be found in England as early as 1200, and not much later after that, you can find that hypocoristic form augmented with a diminutive suffix: Magota 1208 (this is a Latin form and would’ve been Magot in the vernacular). (We’ll give you three guesses as to why this name is no longer popular today….). By the end of the century, there are examples of the -a- shifting to -e-, e.g., Megge 1254, 1275, 1279, etc. You can also see it in Megota 1309 (also Latinized).

Jack for John

Even scholars don't agree on the exact origin!

It's likely one of these:

  • From (Old) French Jacques
  • From Jackin, a diminutive of Jan (itself a mere vowel away from John)
  • From Picard-Flemish *Janke in the same way that Han became Hank(in), which became Hake. (The asterisk means it's a reconstructed form not recorded in written texts.)

Summarized from The Kinship of Jack: I, Pet-Forms of Middle English Personal Names with the Suffixes -kin, -ke, -man and -cot.

Jim for James

Middle English had James, Jame, and Gemme. From there it's a simple vowel change to get to Jim.

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    The best answer, avoiding the nonsense being traded about rhyming slang. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 18:45
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    The bit about rhyming slang is a) certainly present in this answer ("From there, rhyming forms were created, getting us Dick.") and b) not nonsense (how else do you get from "Rick" to "Dick", if not by rhyming? Is the derivation of a nickname by rhyming somehow not inherently a slang usage?) The answer doesn't explicitly state that "Peg" rhymes with "Meg", but I should think it doesn't need pointing out. Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 15:58
  • @WeatherVane Except that .. sometimes this does happen from rhyming slang. No examples come to my mind atm but I know I've seen it even in dictionaries for some names. So it's not nonsense at all. And as Karl put it rhyming is referred to in the answer as well.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 16:15
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    @KarlKnechtel It's not "rhyming slang" (because as I said elsewhere, nicknames aren't slang). Additionally, poetry isn't "rhyming slang" and neither is reduplication, even though they both frequently rhyme. Scholars seem to only use the term "rhyming slang" to refer to expressions like "a Britney" (from "Britney Spears") meaning "a beer".
    – Laurel
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 16:55
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The wikipedia entry for Dick (nickname) says it likely originated via rhyming slang for Rick, which is another nickname for Richard.

Similar answers apply to your other examples. The answer now is that they are idiomatic and traditional, even if they don't make much sense.

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    Well someone should edit the Wikipedia entry, because the rhyming slang they link to did not exist in the Middle Ages they talk about. It's nonsense. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 18:41
  • 3
    @WeatherVane remember wikipedia is editable by anyone. However you would need to have corroborative evidence. Perhaps add notes on their "talk" page for the article ?
    – Criggie
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 19:57
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    @WeatherVane "Cockney Rhyming Slang", which that article seems to primarily focus on, to the exclusion of other forms (presumably part of why it has so many tags for low-quality and questionable-providence) did not exist in the middle ages, true. However, Geoffery Chaucer did, and he makes frequent use of rhymes and slang for euphemisms and nicknames in his works. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 20:47
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    @WeatherVane No, the cited page links to a page about Rhyming Slang, which in turn attempts to talk entirely about a specific form of Rhyming Slang while discounting or downplaying the existence of other forms. If you check the history of the page in question, earlier forms were far more clear about that, but (over time) it has been vandalised into the current state that treats Cockney as King and Original, to the exclusion of all others — for example, insisting on a definition that excludes Irish Rhyming Slang from being a Rhyming Slang. Despite, you know, being slang that rhymes. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 20:57
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    @Chronocidal Nicknames aren't slang, so scholars don't call nicknames that rhyme "rhyming slang". The fact that other types of rhyming slang are excluded from the Wikipedia article is unfortunate (to say the least!) but not germane here.
    – Laurel
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 12:27
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‘Dick’ evolved via rhyming slang out of ‘Rick’, which is a reasonably standard clip form of ‘Richard’ (and that clipping down to ‘Rick’ makes a lot of sense if you consider the typical English approximations of the German pronunciation of ‘Richard’, or how ‘ch’ is typically pronounced in other languages of the British Isles).

‘Bob’ is a similar case of rhyming slang evolved out of ‘Rob’ which is in turn a clip form of ‘Robert’. Usage of ‘Bob’ for ‘Bill’ is not something I’ve personally heard, but I could easily see it as an alliterative substitution that just happened to stick in some micro-dialect.

‘Bill’ itself is yet another case of rhyming slang evolved out of ‘Will’ which is in turn a clip form of ‘William’ (or ‘Willard’).

‘Jim’ is an Anglicization of the Scottish ‘Jem’, which is an old clip form of ‘James’.

At this point, all of them are established forms in English, and that unfortunately means they don’t have to make sense. Etymology of names is often confusing in general (consider for example that John, Sean, and Evan are all different forms of the same name that arrived in the English language via different routes), and nicknames just make it worse.

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    To John, Sean, and Evan, you can add also Hank, which exists as a proper name as a shortening of the archaic name Hankin, another reflex of John. Hank is also a nickname for Henry through a separate etymology. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 13:45
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    No, it did not. The rhyming slang you linked did not exist until 19th century, and rhyming slang does not rhyme with the original word. That is its point. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 18:33
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    Indeed, if one reads the Wikipedia article linked, it's easy to notice that rhyming slang has nothing to do with the rhyming forms of the short names.
    – Ruslan
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 19:00
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    “Jem” might be Scots, but it is not Scots Gaelic. The Gaelic form of “James” is “Seumas”, pronounced like Irish “Séamas” or anglicized “Shamus”. There are no sensible phonological mechanisms for this to give rise to a short form of “Jem”. However, there are such processes to derive “Jem” from “James”. Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 19:16
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    Hmm, the German pronounciation of "Richard" doesn't start with "Rick". (At least current German, not sure about the German centuries ago.) Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 1:32
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Rather than rhyming slang, which is a fairly intellectual application of euphemism (fart, raspberry tart, raspberry), I believe rhyming nicknames arise from older siblings who haven't quite learned to talk. It's a common phenomenon. For example, the name "Buzzy" sometimes derives from "brother" (Buzz Aldrin, Curtis "Buzzy" Roosevelt).

Remember that the "r" in "Richard" would have been pronounced with the tip of the tongue several centuries ago, and a child learning to talk could easily mutate an apical alveolar /r/ sound into /d/.

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  • "older siblings who haven't quite learned to talk" – did you mean "younger", here?
    – V2Blast
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 14:58
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    @V2Blast No, younger siblings don't generally get to "rename" their elder siblings that way — they would object. Toddler name babies this way.
    – Tim Grant
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 17:38
  • @TimGrant: Ah, I see what you mean. I was confused by the combination of "older siblings" with "haven't quite learned to talk". That makes more sense, I guess.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 17:46
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    @V2Blast for example, my 2-year old niece had difficulty pronouncing her newborn brother's given name, leading to his present nickname.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 18:34
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    I don't have any evidence for this but I've always thought that names like Dick and Bob are from baby-talk because not all toddlers, when they learn to speak, cannot pronounce the R sound. So Rick becomes Dick and Rob becomes Bob.
    – cup
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 23:19
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Are there no parents on this thread? My daughter Laura was "Laura-Paura", Pamela was, sometimes, "Pamela-Bamela", sometimes I just called her "Panama". "Anna" to "Anna Banana" is common. Don't tell me that rhyming nicknames aren't a thing! Those who distinguish this from rhyming slang are correct, though. Rhyming slang is when you construct a non-rhyming slang synonym from a rhyming intermediate phrase. If I had called Anna "Dolly" because Anna-Banana -> Dole Bananas -> Dole -> Dolly, that would have been more like rhyming slang.

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  • Nice, great points. Thanks for your contribution!
    – Hefe
    Commented Sep 21, 2022 at 14:25

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