The Origins of 10 Nicknames

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy in "Mad Men."
Elisabeth Moss as Peggy in "Mad Men." / AMC

The origins of some nicknames are obvious. It’s easy to see why Ed is short for Edward, Nick is short for Nicholas, and Ally is short for Allison. Other diminutives require more explanation. If you’re curious how Margaret turned into Peggy, or how Richard led to Dick, check out the histories of 10 nicknames that push the limits of the term.

1. Why is Dick short for Richard?

Dick Van Dyke
The actor Richard "Dick" Van Dyke. / Paul Morigi/GettyImages

The name Richard is very old and was popular during the Middle Ages. In the 12th and 13th centuries everything was written by hand and Richard nicknames like Rich and Rick were common just to save time. Rhyming nicknames were also common and eventually Rick gave way to Dick and Hick, while Rich became Hitch. Dick, of course, is the only rhyming nickname that stuck over time. And boy did it stick. At one point in England, the name Dick was so popular that the phrase “every Tom, Dick, or Harry” was used to describe Everyman.

2. Why is Bill short for William?

Bill Gates
William Henry Gates III, who goes by the nickname Bill. / WPA Pool/GettyImages

There are many theories on why Bill became a nickname for William; the most obvious is that it was part of the Middle Ages trend of letter swapping. Much how Dick is a rhyming nickname for Rick, the same is true of Bill and Will. Because hard consonants are easier to pronounce than soft ones, some believe Will morphed into Bill for phonetic reasons. Interestingly, when William III ruled over England in the late 17th century, his subjects mockingly referred to him as “King Billy.”

3. Why is Hank short for Henry?

Baseball player Hank Aaron.
Baseball player Henry "Hank" Aaron. / John Vawter Collection/GettyImages

The name Henry dates back to medieval England. (Curiously, at that time, Hank was a diminutive for John.) So how do we get Hank from Henry? Well, one theory says that Hendrik is the Dutch form of the English name Henry. Henk is the diminutive form of Hendrick, ergo, Hank from Henk. Hanks were hugely popular here in the States for many decades, though by the early ’90s the name no longer appeared in the top 1000 names for baby boys. But Hank is making a comeback! In 2010, it cracked the top 1000, settling at 806. By 2013 it was up to 632.

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4. Why is Jack short for John?

Jack Nicholson.
John "Jack" Nicholson. / Roy Jones/GettyImages

The name Jack dates back to about 1200 and was originally used as a generic name for peasants. Over time, Jack worked his way into words such as lumberjack and steeplejack. Even jackass, the commonly used term for a donkey, retains its generic essence in the word Jack. Of course, John was once used as a generic name for English commoners and peasants (John Doe), which could be why Jack came became his nickname. But the more likely explanation is that Normans added -kin when they wanted to make a diminutive. And Jen was their way of saying John. So little John became Jenkin and time turned that into Jakin, which ultimately became Jack.

5. Why is Chuck short for Charles?

Chuck Berry playing guitar on stage.
Charles "Chuck" Berry. / Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

“Dear Chuck” was an English term of endearment and Shakespeare, in Macbeth, used the phrase to refer to Lady Macbeth. What's this have to do with Charles? Not much, but it’s interesting. However, Charles in Middle English was Chukken [PDF] and that’s probably where the nickname was born.

6. Why is Peggy short for Margaret?

The name Margaret has a variety of different nicknames. Some are obvious, as in Meg, Mog, and Maggie, while others are downright strange, like Daisy. But it’s the Mog/Meg we want to concentrate on here as those nicknames later morphed into the rhymed forms Pog(gy) and Peg(gy).

7. Why is Ted short for Edward?

Senator Ted Kennedy
Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy. / Wally McNamee/GettyImages

The name Ted is yet another result of the Old English tradition of letter swapping. Since there were a limited number of first names in the Middle Ages, letter swapping allowed people to differentiate between people with the same name. It was common to replace the first letter of a name that began with a vowel, as in Edward, with an easier to pronounce consonant, such as T. Of course, Ted was already a popular nickname for Theodore, which makes it one of the only nicknames derived from two different first names.

8. Why is Harry short for Henry?

Prince Harry, whose full name is Henry Charles Albert David.
Prince Harry, whose full name is Henry Charles Albert David. / Samir Hussein/GettyImages

Since Medieval times, Harry has been a consistently popular nickname for boys named Henry in England. Henry was also very popular among British monarchs, most of whom preferred to be called Harry by their subjects. This is a tradition that continues today as Henry Charles Albert David, as he was Christened, goes by Prince Harry. Of course, Harry is now used as a given name for boys. In 2006, it was the 595th most popular name for boys in the United States. One reason for its upsurge in popularity was the huge success of the Harry Potter books.

9. Why is Jim short for James?

There are no definitive theories on how Jim became the commonly used nickname for James, but the name dates back to at least the 1820s. For decades, Jims were pretty unpopular due to “Jim Crow” laws. The name derived from a minstrel character used to perpetuate racist stereotypes in 19th-century America. The name “Jim Crow” soon became associated with African Americans and by the early 20th century, Jim Crow aimed to promote segregation in the South. Jim has since shed its racial past, and is once again a popular first name for boys all by itself, sans James.

10. Why is Sally short for Sarah?

Sally was primarily used as a nickname for Sarah in England and France. Like some English nicknames, Sally was derived by replacing the R in Sarah with an L. Same is true for Molly, a common nickname for Mary. Though Sally from the Peanuts never ages, the name itself does and has declined in popularity in recent years. Today, most girls prefer the original Hebrew name Sarah.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.