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, it’s 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.