Have you a nickname, a pet name used by those closest to you? The word itself is a nickname, having its origin in the erroneous splitting of a mid-15th century English word ekename, meaning “an additional name.” The root is an Old English word, eaca, meaning “an increase.” This is just one fascinating example of how fresh words enter into any language. At the deepest root, they germinate from action and interplay between people.
The seed of ekename is much deeper, sewn in the rich linguistic loam of ancient Greece: hypocoristic. The etymology of hypocoristic is fascinating, originating in another word, hupokorizomai, meaning “I speak in the language of children.”
What, exactly, is the language of children? For me, the language of children is naturally one of curiosity, exploration, discovery, and joy. In the case of nicknames, the origin is surely between siblings, one child unable to pronounce the name of the other. In my childhood, I spoke many languages—of play, of study, of nature, and even a secret language shared with my sister. Thus was the hypocoristy of my youth.
Have you ever known someone with a self-chosen nickname? It’s always seemed a smug thing, not self-awareness, but a pretense of virtue. This is hypocrisy defined, the source being, again from the grounds of ancient Attica, the word hypokrisis, “acting” and “pretense,” as in playing a role onstage. Beneath this is a more specific word, hypokrinesthai, to “play a part, to pretend.” From Greece, the word evolved through Late Latin and Old French, then lost its “h” in Middle English to become ipocrisie. (The “h” returned sometime in the 16th century.)
I’ve never known a child who chose her own nickname; it seems an adult choice. But what would motivate self-denomination? Perhaps it’s not as hypocritical as it appears; perhaps it signals a very autogenous gesture by a very confident individual, someone choosing to negate the power of a less-than-laudatory label bestowed by someone else.
For me, at least, I think I prefer the hypocoristic tagging rites of my childhood.