Do Americans Have an Obsession with Nicknames?

A couple of weeks ago, Judith left the following comment on a Five-Name Friday post.

I would love it if you dedicated a blog article to the American obsession with nicknames. Being European this really baffles me. Over here we give our children the name we like best, whether this is a long name (i.e. Michael) or a short one (i.e. Mike). A nickname might pop up in due course but is not something that you force (or even think about) beforehand. If you want your child to be called Ella, why would you name her Eleonora only to shorten it to Ella? Like I said it baffles me and I would love to know the background of this phenomenon.

Such an interesting question!

There’s certainly a difference between Americans and Europeans when it comes up nickname usage. You can see it comparing the top names in the U.S. with the top names in England — boy names especially. The English top 20 includes many more informal names (Jack, Harry, Charlie, Alfie, Freddie, Archie) than the U.S. top 20.

Seems to me that both regions are concerned with nicknames, but handle them in very different ways. Europeans are reasonably comfortable putting nicknames on birth certificates, while Americans are not as comfortable turning nicknames into legal names.

So what’s behind these diverging trends? I’m not sure that there’s a single answer, but here are a few theories. (Please excuse me ahead of time for making sweeping generalizations about Americans and Europeans.)

Formality differences
Europeans tend to be more relaxed than Americans, both in terms of daily life/habits and in terms of viewpoints. Maybe this informality leads them to prefer the informal names. (Or at least doesn’t make them feel obligated to use formal names.)

Work attitude differences
Americans tend to be more career-focused than Europeans. Perhaps this outlook makes them feel that it’s smart to have a formal name to fall back on for future professional use — that having a nickname-only name could be limiting.

Class differences
This theory, which is somewhat like the work attitude theory, comes from an Encyclopedia Britannica* blogger and concerns the U.S. and the UK specifically:

Perhaps the difference has to do with class. Americans may shy away from bestowing diminutives upon their children because they suspect that such “cutesy” names will prevent their children from climbing the ranks and becoming CEOs. In the more-rigid class system of the U.K., on the other hand, some parents might believe that that sort of advancement is so unlikely that it’s not worth letting it affect their choice of a name. So Charlie it is.

Gender-switch differences (pertains to boy names only)
In America, many formerly male/unisex names with “-ee” endings (e.g., Ashley, Avery, Bailey, Ellery, Riley) have turned into girl names. This might make Americans more hesitant to permanently attach diminutives with similar endings to baby boys.

Which (if any) of these theories do you think makes the most sense? What others can you think of?

Source: How to Tell a British Baby from an American: Differences in Naming Trends, Judith’s comment

*Did you know about the New York woman named Encyclopedia Britannica?

9 thoughts on “Do Americans Have an Obsession with Nicknames?

  1. I’d put it the other way round: Americans have an obsession with formality. Which is really, really surprising to me in old formal Europe where Americans once were perceived as informal easy going swinging sixties people.

    I think this obsession with formality is the symptom of a deep crisis: That caring for formality can somehow save a lifestyle or life standard that is under pressure of forces the individual cannot control (like globalisation, increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few people).

  2. I think americans like to have options is all. Maybe you don’t like your full name or nickname, mayve you did growing up but now as an adult want something different, or different names for different situations.

  3. I’ve also noticed a divide within the U.S. too (at least historically*): Nicknames-as-full-names are more common in the South than other areas, particularly the Northeast (where they appear to be more intent on having a “formal” name). If you play around at where they show the breakdown (in both absolute numbers and per capita) of how common various first (and last) names are in each state you can see that. *I say “historically” because the data probably comes from phone book listings (which now skew older) – then again another factor would be how strictly the phone companies require listings to match the customer’s legal name.

  4. I wouldn’t put all Europeans in the same basket. Some languages/ countries (I.e. the Netherlands) nickname-y names are common, but this doesn’t happen in most of Europe at all. For instance, in Portugal it’s actually illegal to use nicknames as formal given names. Russians don’t name their children as Masha or Sasha. A Spaniard may go by Nacho, but you bet he has Ignacio in his birth certificate.

    It’s also very unusual in Europe to use nicknames in your professional life (like BIll Clinton or Tiny Blair).

  5. @Megan – That was my very first thought — why wouldn’t you want more versatility (as opposed to less)? But I’m an American, so I’m clearly biased. :)

    @Rita – If a particular country has outlawed informal names, then parents there can’t use them. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t use them, if given the choice.

  6. @Nancy it’s not that simple. Linguistically, there’s a very strong divide between formal names and hypocoristics/diminutives. It’s unusual to get called by a nickname by a stranger or in a formal context – it might even be considered rude. But there are always exceptions to the rule.
    It’s different with names that were originally foreign diminutives – names like Sandra, Mia, Nádia, Enzo, are accepted as Formal names.

  7. @Rita – I totally agree with your original point — that this nickname-y stuff doesn’t apply to a number of European countries. And therefore that my post is way too oversimplified.

    I’m just making a sub-point about the countries with strict naming laws. I don’t think we can make assumptions about where these places would fall on the formal/informal spectrum.

    If you pick one country and take away all the name law(s) right now, for instance, I have no doubt that some portion of that population would immediately start bestowing unusual baby names (and unusual spellings) that they weren’t allowed to use before.

    More importantly, though, what if you’d lifted all the name law(s) a few generations ago? Who knows what sorts of baby names that country would be using today if the name norms (and therefore perceptions!) had been allowed to evolve more naturally, as in other places. Maybe Portugal’s top 10 would include a few nicknames by now if the country’s long-standing name laws had been struck down decades back…

  8. In Germany, there is a North–South divide: In the catholic South, formal names (like Georg or Joseph) occur on the birth certificates while conventionalised nicknames (like Schorsch or Sepp) are used in everyday communication. In the protestant North noone cares about traditional saints and the birth certificates more often contain the simplified forms of the names.

  9. @elbowin – I think you’re right about a possible Catholic vs. Protestant divide, which follows some of the other geographical patterns mentioned so far.

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