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The rhyming links behind many common surnames

Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson. His surname indicates a long-lost relative called 'Roger', or 'Rodge' - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on the lost links that gave us surnames like Nelson, Hobson, Hodgson and Dodgson.

There are not too many men about nowadays who are called Peter, but those of us who do still bear this name are quite liable to get called Pete, especially by family and friends. 

In the same way, women and girls called Margaret may be known as Marg, Alison as Ali, and Susan as Sue. Davids get called Dave, Michaels Mike, and Philips Phil. These abbreviated forms of given names are technically called hypocoristics – pet-names indicative of familiarity and friendship.

Names which already have only one syllable obviously can’t be abbreviated in the same way. In these cases, hypocoristics have to be arrived at by a different route, often by lengthening the name to two syllables: Jane might become Janey, John Johnny, and Jean Jeannie. Some abbreviated hypocoristics can also be re-lengthened using this same -y ending: Thomas > Tom >Tommy, Edward > Ed > Eddy.

But there is another interesting development which can occur in the case of names like Edward: Edwards very often get called, not Ed but Ted – or even Ned.

Nicknames like Ted have been in use ever since the Middle Ages; and it is intriguing to think about how these particular hypocoristics came into being.

They clearly resulted from a playful process which involved speakers in taking an abbreviated one-syllable hypocoristic name and replacing it with some rhyming syllable. Other hypocoristics of this type included Bob from Robert via Rob, Bill from William via Will, and Nell from Helen.

Other well-established nicknames which were arrived at as a result of the same sort of ludic process include Dick from Richard, and Peg from Margaret, though in these two cases other complications came into play.

Dick is most likely to have been derived, not from the originally Parisian French form Richard, but from the Anglo-Norman equivalent Ricard. Peg is a rhyme for Meg, an abbreviated form of Margaret with a change in the pronunciation of the first syllable. Meg gives us the family name Megson.

Sadly, a number of these rhyming personal names have been lost from use over the centuries and are not remembered by anyone today. But, happily, several of these do still live on in a ghostly form, concealed inside modern surnames.

Just as the family name Dickson/Dixon obviously comes from ‘son of Dick = Richard’, and Nelson comes from ‘son of Nell = Helen’, so the common surname Hickson/Hixon tells us that there used to be another alternative to Dick as a rhyming hypocoristic of Richard or Ricard, namely Hick.

We can also detect that there were alternatives to Bob as rhyming hypocoristics for Robert. These included Hob and Dob, which have now disappeared from use, except that they still lie hidden in the surnames Hobson and Dobson.

From the family names Hodgson and Dodgson, astute name-detectives can also deduce that Hodge and Dodge were formerly affectionate rhyming versions of Rodge, an abbreviated form of Roger: even though Hodge and Dodge no longer survive as first names, Hodgson and Dodgson live on to remind us about the fun our English-speaking ancestors used to have in coming up with inventive and playful pet-names for their neighbours, friends and kinsfolk.

Another onomastic ghost can be discerned in the surname Tibbs, ‘(son) of Tibb’. This is derived from the woman’s name Isobel, which was often affectionately altered to Tibb, a rhyme for the abbreviated form Ibb.

Sadly, our distinctively English rhyming pet-names now seem to be being forgotten. Young men these days seem just as often to be called Rob as Bob. A William may be known as Will rather than Bill, and a Richard can go by Rick or Rich as often as Dick. If this process continues, these links to our past, these personal-name survivals passed down to us by our mediaeval English-speaking forbears, will go the same way as Hob, Dodge, Hick and Ibb. 

Dixon and Dickson are alternative spellings of the same name, showing that our letter x is totally redundant. Vixen could just as well be spelt vicksen. But x does have the advantage that it can help to distinguish plural words using the –s suffix, like flecks, from unitary forms such as flex.