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What Is a Sobriquet?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A sobriquet is much like a nickname which is used to refer to a particular person, place, or thing and may be self-appointed or given by others. This term is often assigned humorously or in an attempt to provide a rather picturesque label that can be intended as complimentary or derogatory. Though functionally similar to a nickname, the primary difference between sobriquets and nicknames is that sobriquets can be seen as more specific in nature or a more refined form of nickname. A sobriquet is typically used to such an extent that it becomes immediately recognizable by others and its use is not intended to create confusion.

The origins of the term “sobriquet” are somewhat confusing, since a variety of different spellings for the word have been found even in older usage. This makes it difficult to tie any single origin or meaning to it, since different spellings could come from different linguistic sources. It is most likely a French term, though even its French spelling has changed over the years and could stem from one of several different uses. The modern spelling and usage of “sobriquet,” however, likely comes from a French word that refers to a cut of meat below the chin of an animal.

In usage, a sobriquet is a word typically used as a nickname for a particular person or thing. The distinction between a nickname and a sobriquet, however, is fairly muddied and some examples of a nickname by one group may then be used as examples of soubriquets by another. In common usage, the two terms can be used fairly interchangeably with little confusion. More precise usage, however, may utilize sobriquets as more refined or pointed forms of nicknames, which are intended to convey a particular connotation, usually positive or negative.

The term “The Big Apple” to refer to New York City, for example, could be seen as either a nickname or a sobriquet, depending on the preferences of an individual. Since this term does not inherently indicate affection or dissatisfaction, however, it may be seen more as a nickname; while a term like “The City of Love” used to refer to Paris clearly indicates a positive association and is more likely to be considered a sobriquet. This distinction is minimal, however, and should not be considered absolute, as many terms like "The Bard of Avon" for William Shakespeare and "Honest Abe" for Abraham Lincoln can be seen as nicknames or sobriquets. As with many aspects of language, there is a great deal of flexibility and uncertainty regarding the proper distinction between nicknames and sobriquets.

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