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What Is a Hypocorism?

By John Markley
Updated May 23, 2024
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A hypocorism is an altered, usually shortened version of a word or name that is usually used in informal or familiar situations. Nicknames, pet names, and terms of endearment, such as those used among friends, family members, or lovers, are often hypocorisms. The most conspicuous hypocoristic forms are derived from people's given names, but they can be formed from other nouns as well. Hypocorisms exist in many languages and are formed in a number of different ways.

In English and a number of other languages, such as French and German, one common way of forming a hypocorism is by simply shortening the original name. For example the given names Alexander, Benjamin, and Jennifer are often reduced to their first syllable to become Al, Ben, and Jen. Some names can be reduced to a single later syllable, such as turning Ezekiel into Zeke.

A hypocorism sometimes involves altering the name, which may or may not include shortening it. The creation of the hypocoristic names Ted, Jack, and Bob from Edward, John, and Robert are examples of this. In some cases a hypocorism retains only a small resemblance to the original name. For instance, Hal and Hank are both used as familiar forms of the name Henry.

A type of hypocorism can also be formed by using a diminutive, an altered form of the name that conveys smallness. In English this is commonly done by adding “-ie” or “-y” to a name. For instance, the diminutive form of the name John is Johhny or Johnnie. The diminutive is often formed from an already-altered version of the name that has also been changed in one of the ways described previously. For example, Timothy and William can become Timmy and Billy.

Other languages have their own ways of forming diminutives and frequently also use suffixes. Latin uses the suffixes “-ulus” and “-ula,” as in the name of the notorious emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known by his childhood nickname Caligula (“little boot”).Russian has a number of diminutive suffixes used for names, with “-ya” and “-ushka” being common examples, and given names often have many possible diminutive variants. The name Ivan, for instance, can become Ivanushka, Vanyusha, or Vanya, among several other possibilities.

The use of a hypocoristic version of a person's name usually implies some degree of familiarity or at least informality. A man named James is more likely to be addressed as Jim or Jimmy by his friends or his wife than by a stranger or business client, for instance. Diminutives are commonly used to address children, though they are also used to express familiarity or affection among adults.

Addressing someone by a hypocoristic version of his or her name in less familiar contexts is often seen as rude, condescending, or offensive. Diminutives, in particular, can be used as insults in some languages when used outside of a friendly context, because addressing someone by a childlike or small version of his or her name can be used to express disdain or contempt by implying that the person being addressed is weak, unimportant, or unworthy of respect. Inappropriate use of a hypocoristic version of a woman's name in a formal setting is also frequently regarded as sexist or belittling.

Hypocorisms can also be used for other nouns, including both common nouns and other types of proper nouns. Their hypocoristic forms are made in the same way as those for given names, most commonly by shortening the word and adding a suffix to make it diminutive. This includes words such as "telly," short for “television,” and "movie," which began as a shortened form of “moving picture” but has now almost entirely displaced the term it was derived from. Some hypocoristic names for objects are based on the way small children talk or on the the simplified, higher-pitched form of speech often used by parents with small children. Use of the diminutives “doggy” and “kitty” to refer to dogs and cats are a common examples.

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