Should We Redefine the Name “Nancy”?

Most baby name books and websites define Nancy as “grace” or “favor.” Why? Because they call Nancy a form of Anne, and Anne is defined as “grace” or “favor.”

The more I learn about my own name, though, the more I question this assumption.

It’s true that Nancy has long been used as form of Anne. But it wasn’t originally used in this way.

Here’s the story.

In the Middle Ages, Annis was a common female name. It was a vernacular form of Agnes (which can be traced back to the ancient Greek word hagnos, meaning “pure, chaste”).

Phrases like “mine Annis” and “thine Annis” eventually gave rise to names like Nanse and Nansie.

Mine Annis, thine Annis, became my Nannis, my Nanse (Nance), thy Nannis, thy Nanse (Nance); and Nanse, Nance, Nanze, with the usual diminutiv, became Nansie, and speld Nancie, and now usually Nancy.

Then two things happened.

First, the name Annis fell into disuse. “With the disappearance of the form Annis, the connection of Nancy with Agnes was forgotten.”

Second, in the late 1600s, the names Nan and Nanny — very common diminutives of Anne — became slang for “prostitute.” In their place, parents began using Nancy.

[Interesting coincidence: Nan and Nanny were derived from phrases like “mine Anne” and “thine Anne,” much like the way Nancy was derived from Annis.]

So, as Nancy’s link to Agnes faded, its link with Anne grew stronger. As a result, people saw Nancy as a diminutive of Anne and defined it accordingly.

But is the definition correct? (Is there a such thing as a “correct” definition in cases like this?)

How would you define Nancy?


  • American Philological Assocation. Transactions of the American Philological Association. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1892.
  • Hanks, Patrick, Kate Hardcastle and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of First Names. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

10 thoughts on “Should We Redefine the Name “Nancy”?

  1. Lately due to my daughter’s favorite books, I am reminded of Fancy Nancy. And for the first time ever, I find myself liking Nancy.

    Besides the fact that Nancy will be due to recycle in 20-30 years anyway, with the added bonus of this generation growing up with the Fancy Nancy books, I think the future kids of today’s 3-10 year-olds will have a lot of Nancy’s.

  2. I’ve heard the theory that Nancy may have derived from Agnes, but I still question it. Are the forms you mentioned (Nannis, Nanse) and their connection with Agnes attested in medieval sources? Hanks & Hodges, at least in my 1995 edition, refer to Nancy as “of uncertain origin.” The main objection to Ann > Nancy that I have seen is that Ann “has no place for the /s/ to have come from”, so therefore Nancy must be from Agnes. But this is unconvincing, because there are other diminutives which clearly show an epenthetic /s/: Elizabeth > Betsy, Martha > Patsy, and the added /s/ is still productive today; e.g. a Lily might be called “Lils.” So I wonder if it might not be premature to redefine the name Nancy.

  3. oooo!!!! LOVE the etymology!! you are truly great at this kind of thing! i thought i would be, but, alas…have not gotten far.

    out of the names on this list, i like;

    Tags: anne, annis, nan, nance, nannis, nanny, nanse, nanze. my absolute FAVie is def Annis! how refreshing and new!! i’m adding it to my Master Beloved list. recently i came upon an “Annzie” which i thought was wonderful, with a lowercase,annzie that is :)

    ps-LOVE your site!

    <3 Jiinxsay

  4. I just came across this looking for information on the name “Nancy” to send to a cousin with that name. When we were at a family event yesterday, baby names were discussed and Nancy mentioned that she has known very few Nancys and thought her name was rather rare. I asked her if she knew that Nancy came from Ann(e), and she had never heard that. This morning I read that Nancy, Ann and Hannah are all thought to be related, which I’m sure Nancy will be pleased to know because her only granddaughter is named Hannah. Thanks for the discussion of your name, Nancy.

  5. Nancy, this may be of interest to you regarding the name Nancy: “Origin uncertain. In England Nancy has been a pet name for Ann since the 18th century [see also Nan] but more recently has been a given name in its own right.

    In Scotland Nancy has long been used synonymously with Agnes and one correspondent [EP] records this interchangeability in Salem, Massachusetts, USA towards the end of the 18th century.”

    Also from that website regarding the name Ann: “A private communication [LG] records Agnes being used in formal records for someone whose birth registration [1830, Catholic] was Ann.

    Another correspondent [CMcB] has noted a baptismal Agnes shown as Ann in official records in Kincardineshire, Scotland. These two names were considered to be fully synonymous in the 17th century and earlier and this has continued in some areas until recently.

    Sources are given.

  6. Reportedly Nancy was used as a nickname for Hannah from the 18th century through the 19th century. Some examples:

    Hannah “Nancy” BARTH\BAARDT; Birth: 1773 in Herkimer, NY

    Hannah Anne “Nancy” Vaughan, born in the village of Bont Uchel (High Bridge), near the town of Ruthin, Denbigh County, Wales on October 19, 1881.

    Hannah “Nancy” O’Driscoll, b. about 1880, Ireland

    And from a UK genealogy website: “…You must also bear in mind that your ancestors may not be using the name which they were registered with… Also they may be recorded under a nickname such as… Nancy for Anne, Ann or Hannah.”

  7. Find one more interesting with my own name.. i am also Nancy, and i am a chinese descendant.
    My grandma gave me a name as Lina, but i disliked it… So i ask my mom to change it.
    During our discussion, mom gave me the nan (south) and xi (like what you wrote first).. but there was no meaning..
    So i asked another words that were closest to Nancy’s pronunciation.
    Here we went. We got it. It’s “En Ci”
    If you pronounce it in Mandarin, the sound is like Ency in English..
    But here in my place, people sometimes call the chinese woman as enci, so many of my friends call me Ncy..
    Therefore, the term En Ci is closest to Nancy.
    Then what about the meaning? You will find this AMAZING.
    Because En Ci means Grace!
    Then, i picked En Ci as my Chinese name.

    Just today, as I found the meaning of Nancy, and am surprised to find out that the meaning is also grace!

    There is nothing such as coincidence in life. God has made me so because He loves me.

    So that also happens in you life, Nancy! : )
    Thanks for sharing.

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