Saintly Nicknames as Given Names

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How do you feel about nicknames as given names? I do baby name consultations for expectant parents, and in my experience, thoughts about nicknames tend to break down into two groups:

“We like this nickname for everyday use, but we want to bestow a more formal name as a given name,”

and

“We want to name the baby what we intend to call him/her — why bother with a formal name we’ll never use?”

According to the Social Security Administration data, the former perspective has the majority, though both are represented. In the top ten names of 2018, there’s one boy name and one girl name that started out as diminutives or shortened forms of longer more “formal” names, and both are more popular than their originating name: Liam (no. 1 in 2018) for William (no. 3) and Mia (no. 7) for Maria (no. 116). Moving beyond the top ten to the top 100, Jack (no. 28) is nearly on par with its originating name John (no. 27), and Ellie (no. 37) can be a nickname for Elizabeth (no. 13), Ella (no. 15), Eleanor (no. 32), Elena (no. 66), and Eliana (no. 83).

This kind of thing drives some people crazy, but there are actually quite a few names that started as nicknames but have come to be considered formal names in their own rights. Some examples are Pippa (diminutive of Philippa), Alison (diminutive of Alice) and Alice itself (a short form of Adalheidis [Adelaide]), Nancy (originally a diminutive of Agnes’ variant Annis, and later of Anne as well), Emmett (diminutive of Emma) and Elliott (diminutive of Elias [Elijah]), Molly (diminutive of Mary), Robin (diminutive of Robert), Austin (contracted form of Augustine), and Bennett (short form of Benedict). Many of these date back to the medieval period. Other names that started as nicknames (diminutives or short forms) that we often see bestowed as given first names include Jake, Maggie, Sadie, and Archie (hello, little prince), and just today, a friend told me of a little girl she knows whose given name is “just Josie” (not Josephine).

There’s another set of nicknames that have taken on a life of their own as given names, which I was reminded of by comments from readers on a recent baby name consultation I did. The parents like the name Nell, but they prefer for it to be a nickname for a more formal, saintly given name. A couple of readers suggested Little Nellie of Holy God for the saintly connection* — she’s mostly known as Nellie, even though her baptismal name was Ellen, and I can see parents naming daughters Nellie with her in mind, since that’s the name mostly attached to the stories of her holiness. And there are others whose names attached to the stories of their holiness — the names that parents choose to name their children, in honor of these people — are nicknames! I mean true nicknames, not religious names. Some of these are well known, while you might be surprised by some of the others:

St. Rose of Lima
Rose’s birth name was Isabel! According to this site, “Isabel del Flores y del Olivia, known to history as St. Rose of Lima … was baptized on the day of her birth, with her aunt, Isabel de Herrara, acting as her godmother. The baby was named after her aunt, Isabel. Because the child was so beautiful, she was nicknamed Rosa or Rose. History and her family would call her by this name.”

St. Francis of Assisi

"Saintly nicknames as baby names" by Kate Towne (CatholicMom.com)

Mariano Salvador Maella [Public domain]

Francis’ birth name was John! According to his Wikipedia entry, “[His dad] Pietro was in France on business when Francis was born in Assisi, and [his mother, a Frenchwoman named]Pica had him baptized as Giovanni. Upon his return to Assisi, Pietro took to calling his son Francesco (“the Frenchman”), possibly in honor of his commercial success and enthusiasm for all things French.”

St. Bernadette
St. Bernadette’s given name was actually Marie-Bernarde! This site even refers to her as Marie, which I find kind of hilarious. As with so many of these nicknames, once you know that Bernadette (“little Bernarde,” where Bernarde is the French feminine form of Bernard) is a diminutive of her name, it takes on a such a sweet, affectionate feel.

St. Rita of Cascia

Rita is a traditional nickname for the Italian variant of Margaret — Margherita — and St. Rita’s given name was, indeed, Margherita! But I’ve only ever seen her referred to as Rita.

St. Zelie
It’s perhaps not as unfamiliar that St. Zelie’s given name was Marie-Azélie, but she went by Zelie — and that’s the name I see her called and the name I see bestowed in her honor most often.

Ven. Fulton Sheen

"Saintly nicknames as baby names" by Kate Towne (CatholicMom.com)

By Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c23461, Public Domain, Link

Though I have seen both Peter and John considered by families in honor of Ven. Fulton Sheen, after his given name (Peter John Sheen), the honor would be mostly a secret one, as this Venerable is known always and only as Fulton, which was his mother’s maiden name.

Juanito (St. Juan Diego)
This one isn’t exactly like my previous examples, because I haven’t heard of lots babies being named Juanito when wanting to honor St. Juan Diego — in fact, I only know of one Juanito (the pastor of my parish), but I asked him about his name and it is, indeed, his given name, and it was bestowed in honor of St. Juan Diego, as Our Lady called him: “Juanito, Juan Dieguito, the most humble of my sons.”

Lolek (St. John Paul II)
Like with Juanito, it’s rare to hear of a little Lolek, but I have heard it from time to time from Catholic parents looking for a different way to honor St. John Paul the Great, as it was his childhood nickname.

Can you think of other examples of saints being known as a name that was not their given name (and not their religious name), which would be the name parents would be most likely to choose in their honor? Do you know of any little ones named in the style of Juanito and Lolek — nicknames that aren’t as well known and aren’t necessarily the names the saints are known as, but are absolutely connected to them?

* As far as I can tell, Little Nellie’s cause for canonization has not been opened, though it’s pretty amazing that she was the reason Pope St. Pius X lowered the age of Communion for children: “‘There! That is the sign for which I was waiting.’ — Pope St Pius X after hearing about the holy life of little Nellie. A few months later in 1910 he issued “Quam Singulari” which significantly lowered the age of Holy Communion for children.”


Copyright 2020 Kate Towne

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About Author

Kate is a writer, wife to a really good man, and mama to their seven boys ages 1 to 15. She shares her thoughts on Catholic baby naming at Sancta Nomina, and her first book, Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018) can be found at ShopMercy.org and Amazon.

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