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Ordinary Nickname, Extraordinary Name

April 10, 2024 laurawattenberg 2 Comments

Ordinary Nickname, Extraordinary Name

April 10, 2024 LauraWattenberg 2 Comments
Gustave Doré’s Leviathan

Which came first, the nickname or the name?

The question may sound silly. Nicknames are pet forms derived from given names…right? In fact, the origin story sometimes runs the other way. Parents who loved the name Finn but wanted a more “formal-sounding” option have turned the surname Finnegan into a top-500 first name. And instead of saying that Emmy is short for Emerson, we might want to say that Emerson is long for Emmy.

A close look at US name data reveals that names like those are just the beginning. Recent nickname-fueled name trends include:

Leviathan (M)
The fearsome biblical sea monster’s name wasn’t given to human babies until Levi started to become fashionable at the turn of the millennium. Today, it’s chosen for about 70 American boys each year, and Leviticus isn’t far behind.

Hatteras (F)
Cape Hatteras, North Carolina bears one of the oldest English place names in the US. As a baby name, though, Hatteras is brand new. In related news, Hattie has recently hit its highest popularity level in 75 years.

Calypso (F)
Calypso was a musical style and a Greek nymph, but never an American baby name until the recent rise of Cali and Callie. The full names California and Caliber have been heard as well.

Theoden (M) and Theon (M)
If you were going to pick a Lord of the Rings character likely to inspire namesakes, I doubt that Theoden, King of Rohan would have topped your list. But even he is a likelier inspiration than Game of Thrones’ Theon Greyjoy. Both names have been rising thanks to the ultra-fashionable nickname Theo.

Maximus (M)
This ancient name came to America’s attention via the lead character of the film Gladiator. The appeal of Max kept its popularity growing decades after the movie left theaters.

Levi, Callie, Hattie, Theo, Max. All of those names enjoyed popularity waves in past centuries, too, but they didn’t inspire this kind of creativity. The names themselves, or their traditional formal sources, were enough. Today, baby name hunters want more. More individuality, more impact. As that impulse leads them to break new ground, a familiar nickname can feel like a safety net—or a launchpad for ever more extraordinary baby name dreams.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • LikeToPivotPivot
    LikeToPivotPivot April 15, 2024 at 5:31 am

    I think this might have happened with Kim in the 1950s. The inspiration for naming girls Kim is pretty obvious but I had to dig to find Kimberly. It happened again in the UK with Kim Wilde, way more girls were named Kimberley.

  • Penguinmom April 17, 2024 at 11:47 pm

    I’m reminded of the story of Kurtwood Smith’s name. From IMDb:
    “Kurtwood” is his real first name. According to an interview with him on Caroline Rhea’s syndicated television show (April 8, 2003), his mother was a huge fan of a country singer named Kurt (or Curt) in the early 1940s. However, she thought “Kurt Smith” was too short a name, so she added “wood”–“she just tacked it on to the end”, said Smith. His mother because she felt there already too many people named Kurt.

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