gentes quoque ac loca et alia multa reperias inter nominum causas.
“On investigarion you would find that the sources for names include peoples, places and many other phenomena.”
Quintilian (c. 35 CE – 100) Institutio oratoria 1.3.26
Where do names come from – the names for peoples, for mountains, for rivers, for cities, for individuals? Where do nicknames come from, indeed the very word “nickname’ itself?
I confess to an almost unhealthy enchantment with words, pure and simple, just words, and in particular that branch of word study known as ‘onomastics’, or the study of names. I attribute this general obsession with words to my Mother’s fascination with words and languages. Unknowingly, when she put words (often in several languages) on the chalkboard in the bedroom my brother and I shared so that we could learn them, she was following Quintilian’s advice about instilling in the child an early and abiding interest in words.
Quintilian, who was one of a number of important Latin writers of Spanish origin in the first century, became something like the educator of Renaissance Europe through the enormous and enduring influence of his famous Institutes of Oratory, a kind of summa pedagogica for all time. The passage cited above comes from a context in which he is discussing the need to make sure that young students understand the basics of nouns – their declensions and their origins – before they are allowed to move on to higher things (it is a point that might well be noted by many of today’s educators of the young, ever eager to gloss over what is ‘uninteresting’ in English and to encourage their charges to be ‘creative’ with material they cannot possibly understand yet).
As an example, Quintilian cites the hypothetical case of the praeceptor acer atque subtilis (1.4.25), the “sharp and clever teacher” who will take students on a journey to the origins of names based on physical characteristics. A man name Rufus is ‘red’ (from the color of his hair – our woman’s name ‘Ruby’ is related to the Latin), and a Longus is ‘tall’. Other suspects of person and personality clearly come into play here: a Caesar was “cut” (Latin caes-) from his mother’s belly – hence our ‘caesarean section’, itself lexical overkill, since Latin sec(t)- also means ‘cut’ – and a Postuma was born last, or after her father died. And an Agrippa was presumably if obscurely named from a breech delivery, or, as Pliny put it (Natural History 7.45) in pedes procidere nascentem – ‘falling forth at birth onto one’s feet.”
All names are etymologically significant, It may be problematical to determine the precise mechanism, but if one can go back far enough, a signification emerges. Thus, modern names like Smith or Brewer are sufficiently transparent to a native speaker of English, but a name like Bishop is opaque. Do you know what it means? It ultimately goes back to a Greek word, ἐπίσκοπος episkopos ‘(any kind of) overseer’, e.g. of a farm or an estate, and later narrowed semantically to just a religious kind of overseer. Since the initial e- was not stressed in English it simply dropped out at the beginning (a common enough diachronic phonological process known as aphaeresis), and the Greek grammatical functor –os, being meaningless in English, likewise disappeared from the end (a process even more common, and known as apocope). In due course the mutilated piskop became bishop (cf. early English fisc > modern fish) and was eventually nominalized (i.e., made into a proper noun) in much the same way that other professsion-tradesman terms like Smith and Brewer were, not to mention Fuller,Dance, Baker, Cooper, et al.
What, finally, about ‘nickname’ itself? Following Quintilian, I would here offer an analysis of this noun, perhaps more thorough than you may deem decent, but you’ll have to admit it really is a lot of fun. The word is a product of faulty morphemic analysis. The Middle English form ‘ekename’ was, with the indefinite article (an), ‘an ekename’, which easily came to be misanalyzed as ‘a nekename’ or ‘nickname’. The ‘ek(e)- element is cognate with Latin (and Greek) aug- (αὐξ- [aux-]) ‘increase’, as in the English derivatives ‘augment’, ‘auctorial’, and, indirectly through French, ‘author’ (who ‘increases’ as it were), and is also seen in the phrase ‘eke out a living’, which means to ‘supplement, increase (with effort)’ one’s livelihood. Thus, ‘nickname’ really is an ‘extra, added name’. An English ‘nickname’ can be neutral, it can vilify or it can laud, but the modern Swedish cognate, öknamn is more narrowly restricted semantically and refers primarily to a vilifying nickname. And like all Swedish nouns, it marks gender and definite- [= ‘the’] /indefinite-ness [= ‘a, an’] by tacking on to the end of the stem the definite article [here, –et] to yield öknamnet, which ends in a consonant (unlike vocalic ‘a’ in front of the English stem), and hence the noun in Swedish does not lend itself to the kind of erroneous reanalysis we find in English: English ‘an ekename’ > ‘a nekename (nickname) vs. Swedish öknamn-et > öknamn-et !
This posting admittedly ranged rather wider of Latin (and Greek) than most, but note how Latin gave it a start. And, how could I, once set in motion, not play out such an intriguing subject? Incidentally, if you like this kind of thing, check out a terrific journal named Names put out by the American Names Society.