Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Names & Nicknames in Jane Austen's Works

Next to my love of Jane Austen is my love of names - their origins, meanings, and histories. 
If you read Jane Austen's works long enough you'll discover that her carefully crafted characters also have names that suit them to a tee. If you look into the meanings, popularity and social associations of each name we can see that "The Authoress" has chosen her character's names very specifically. (For more on the meanings of their names check out Mel's posts at But when a young lady is to be a heroine about Austen Heroines Names and Austen Heroes Names.)

It was Melody's at Regency Delight ~Jane Austen, etc.~ post entitled: Sense and Sensibility: Nancy or Anne? which first inspired me to write on this subject. Her post asks a question common among readers of Jane Austen: 

Why is Miss Steele, sister of Lucy Steele in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility sometimes called Anne and sometimes called Nancy? 

The easy answer is that Miss Steele's Christian name is Anne and her nickname is Nancy. 
But this leads to the question why is Nancy a common nickname for Anne? And for that matter why is Catherine Bennet in Pride and Prejudice always called Kitty and why is Fanny Price of Mansfield Park named after her mother Frances but she's never called Frances in the book? 

Let's try to answer these questions!

Where did these these now "common" English nicknames actually come from? 
My research to led me to the terrific article Where Do Our Nicknames Come From? at which was very enlightening. I highly recommend reading their article if you want more info but I'll quote from them and sum up what you need to know.

Nicknames and terms of endearment have been used in almost every culture world wide but common English nicknames we have today have their roots in the Middle Ages and the Norman Invasion. There were several ways in which nicknames were formed at these times:

  1. A common way to make nicknames in the Middle Ages was "to add -kin, -in, or -cock to the end. Thus, John  became Jankin or Jenkin, which eventually became shortened to Jakin, which in turn became Jack.Using this rule Francis was turned into Frankin and FrankHenry was turned into Hawkin, Henkin, Hankin, Hank, Henecok; and Robert was turned into Robin, Hobkin.
  2. Another popular style of nicknames in the Middle Ages was Rhyming names. "For example, Robert spawned not only Rob, but Hob and Dob as well, which in turn became Hobkin and Dobkin." Another example would be William's nickname becoming not only Will but Bill and later Billy.
  3. The Norman Invasion of England in 1066 changed the language and added many new sounds which "...the native populations had difficulty with. The "r" sound was one of these, which led to it being dropped or changed in many diminutive forms of names." For example Dorothy could be Dolly instead of Dorie; Mary could be Molly, Polly, or Maisie; Margaret could be Maggie instead of Margie or could Meg, Peg or Peggy; Sarah could be Sally or Sadie; and instead of Frannie, Frances could be called Fanny.
  4. Also at the time of the Norman Invasion "-ch and -th sounds were pronounced like "k" and "t"... Surviving today are the pronunciations of Thomas, Theresa and Anthony (pronounced like Antony in Britain still). Richard was pronounced more like Rickard, thus giving rise to the pet forms Rick, Hick, and Dick." So Dorothy could be Dot or Dodie; Elizabeth could be called Bessie, Betty or Betsy; and Catherine could be called Kit, Kitty or Kate.
  5. "Another pet name trend was to use "mine" in front of a name. This eventually contracted to add an "n" sound to the beginnings of some names." For example Ann's nickname became Nan, Nannie and eventually Nancy, while Edward's nickname became Ned instead of just Ed.


If there are all these interesting nicknames why do some of Jane Austen's characters have nicknames and some do not?

Similar to today, nicknames in Jane Austen's day were entirely up to the individual and the family.
But, a lot of times children would be named after a family member and a nickname might be used for the young child to distinguish from their older relative. Often parents would Christen their child after a wealthier relative and make them godfather or godmother of the child in the hopes that the wealth relative might favor their namesake with an inheritance. 
Therefore the naming of a child could tell you volumes about their parent's hopes and dreams for them. Jane Austen, that great observer of human nature, knew this and chose the names of her characters very carefully. 

  • George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, had as his godfather the elder Mr. Darcy who mentioned Wickham in his will. This and the fact that his young daughter was named Georgiana leads me to believe that Fitzwilliam Darcy's father, the elder Mr. Darcy, would probably have had the first name George. 
  • In Mansfield Park, Fanny's youngest sister Betsey is goddaughter to their Aunt Norris (which leads me to believe they shared the common Christian name Elizabeth) but young Betsey is less fortunate than other godchildren, receiving from her stingy aunt only the apologizes of not sending her a prayer book!


Why are some characters only called by their nicknames? do these characters even have proper Christian names?

Similar to today some children who were given nicknames would grow into their full names while others would find that their nickname suited them throughout their lives. 

Why is Catherine Bennet called Kitty and Catherine Morland is never called so? 
In Pride and Prejudice Miss Catherine Bennet's nickname of Kitty does seem to suit her better, but then perhaps she was named after her mother or Aunt Phillips and so they kept the nickname to distinguish between them. 
Miss Catherine Morland, of Northanger Abbey, might not have needed a nickname because she lived away from close relatives, or perhaps (as in both film adaptations of Northanger Abbey) Catherine's siblings did call her Cathy or Kitty at home. Then again she might have decided a nickname didn't suit her as her sister Sarah (formerly called Sally) did.  

Why is Anne Steele usually called Nancy and Anne Elliot is never called by a nickname?  Perhaps both are named after family members, but then again maybe what they are called may tell us more about their stations in life then anything else. Miss Anne Steele is from a humble Devonshire family, while Miss Anne Elliot's family is among the nobility of England and Ireland! To Sir Walter Elliot, "Anne" was the name of Queens and royalty, so in his eyes it suited his daughter better than the common nickname "Nancy". 

Would characters like Fanny Price, who are only called by a nickname, have proper first names? Yes, they would most certainly have had full Christian names, even if they aren't mentioned in the novels. Among the middle and upper classes that Jane Austen associated with there were definitely names that were considered acceptable as Christian names and a nickname like Sally, Jack, Fanny or Ned would not have been considered a "proper Christian name". Therefore Fanny would have been legally Christened "Frances Price", after her mother, but her family called her Fanny. It seems to be telling of her relative's thoughts about her that when she is taken into their upper class society she is not raised to the rank of a "Frances" but is kept at the lowly positions of "just Fanny Price". I personally think the nickname suits the meek character better and Jane Austen must have too!

Did Jane Austen have a nickname? 
Yes! In a letter to a relative soon after Jane Austen's birth her father called his daughters "Cassie" and "Jenny". But we find later in their teens and early twenties that "Jenny" is never in use in family letters to mean Jane, but Jane Austen sometimes refers to her sister Cassandra (named after their mother), as "Aunt Cassie" when writing to her nieces and nephews.

A few other observations of naming in Jane Austen's England:

  • Biblical names, still associated with the Puritains, Quakers and other pious religious groups, were often considered plain and used more frequently among the lower classes (servants like Jemima, Rebecca and Dorcas). But anglicized versions such as Anne (or Anna instead of Hannah), Elizabeth (instead of Elisabeth), Jane (instead of Joanna), Susan (instead of Susana), Maria (instead of Miriam or even Mary) and James (instead of Jacob) were more frequently used. 
  • Names were very much linked with their origins so it could be assumed that if you had a "foreign" sounding name that you would probably not be from England. Surnames were especially telling of the family's country or county. 
  • Flower names didn't come into fashion until the late 1800's so it would seem odd for a girl to be named Violet, Rose or Lily. 
  • Meanings of names, their histories and associations (social, political, religious) were almost always taken into account when parents named their children. Jane Austen plays on this language of names from time to time in her novels. (i.e. "...though his name was Richard..." Northanger Abbey, Chapter 1)
  • There were many Greek influences on popular fashion and customs in the Regency era, this Greek influence included the rise in popularity of names such as Sophia, Cassandra, Helen (and Eleanor from the same Greek source), Lydia, Nicholas, Philip and Christopher.   
  • There were also German influences because of the royal family's connections to them so names with German origins such as Frederick, George, Albert, Charlotte, Emma and Augusta were products of those influences.

For more information and a completer list of nicknames used in Jane Austen's time check out these posts at my blog Name EnthusiastJane Austen and English Nicknames and English Nicknames in Jane Austen's Day.

For a complete lists of characters in Jane Austen's works visit's Jane Austen Character Names and my work-in-progress blog Jane Austen Names.


Risa said...

WoW! YOu've done some extensive research! I really enjoyed reading the whole history between some of the most common names in English. I have yet to follow the links you've provided...I hope to get sometime to explore them a little later.

I can't say that I ever wondered about the nicknames in Austen, or sometimes the lack of them. But I like the passage where you give what kind of significance these nicknames (or lack thereof) had in Austen's novels. Again, I'm not sure if Austen would have deliberately worked it out in this manner, it must've been something rather subconscious. Coming from a place where nicknames are part of our culture, I think, if I were to write something, the use of a name in certain situations might subconsciously come through.

Great work!...and thank you for this informative piece! :D

Miss Dashwood said...

Miss Laurie, this was fascinating. You are very insightful about names. I found myself nodding along to just about everything you said!
Kitty Bennet is sometimes called Catherine in the novel, though.

Miss Elizabeth Bennet said...

This was a very interesting post and I greatly enjoyed reading it. I always wondered how Jack was a nickname for John, but now it makes sense. Thank you for this post!

Melody said...


Anonymous said...

Very informative and fun to read. You certainly did quite a bit of work on this. I know it is a subject that you love and it shows. Job well done. Thanks. -Mrs. M. (aka. MOM)

Anonymous said...

Thank you. It's nice to get an answer so quickly and so throughly without having to search for ages!

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