From where does the word nickname come? In examining the word, its most obvious attribute is that it's a compound word—two words joined together to form a new communal one. The nucleus, or “head word” of this word pairing is name; whereas, the nick prefix in the world of compound words, is named the "modifier."
Name Game The root of the word name is nomen, which is directly translated from the same word for “name” in Latin. The most common example of how nomen has rhizomed its way unadulterated into common usage in our modern vocabulary is in another compound word, nomenclature; which is defined as the act or instance of naming things (literally, “calling the name”) or as a list of these so-called things. A given nomenclature generally refers to a grouping of esoteric terms used in some discipline, field, or specialty.
And speaking of esoteric terminology, there is a narrowly used, highly specialized scientific term in English that incorporates the word nomen; that is, nomen nudum, literally, “naked name.” This term is employed by animal and plant taxonomists who themselves are employed to ensure that every living thing has its own unique, specific (as in species) and universally accepted scientific name (as in genus-and-species). An organism labeled with a nomen nudum signifies that the name given to that specific plant or animal is not universally accepted because it fails to qualify for or conform to the precisely defined criteria as being a formal scientific name, as judged by the aforementioned species name police. Reasons a given name would be at once termed and terminated as a nomen nudum, and thus a persona non grata in the hallowed halls of said naming conventioneers, include being in nonconformance with a litany of highly specific rules and regulations, and--not to name names— biases of specific highly regarded "taxono-bureaucrats." So, when you find yourself in the desert of America, you may now know who to blame if you have a nameless horse, or who to ask what to call it, if you are so asked. In the meantime, you could always employ the amazing tradition of baseball's nicknaming convention, and shout out, "Say, hay-burner!" But, no matter what you call it, that’s the convoluted naked truth about this name blame game.
A common example of how nomen has also worked its way into our daily discourse is the word “nominate”; that is, to name someone, as in to run for a political office. Then there is nom de plume, a French term embraced as-is in English translated as pen name, for which the "plume" part originates from back in the day when pens were made of bird feathers. And this is also equivalent to pseudonym, a false name, for which the "-nym" is derived from the Latin nomen root. This begs the question, what do you call a Frenchman and his pen pal when one uses a pseudonym when writing the other who uses a nom de plume; are they birds of a nom de plume?
The actual “stand alone” word nomen, in English today, has one other very limited, yet specific use. It refers to the second (or clan or tribal or gens) name of an ancient Roman--a detail that, if taught, got by me in high school world history, and of which I was completely unaware until researching the origins and evolution of the word nickname. I can only assume that this use of the term nomen is common predominantly in the nomenclature of the students of and experts on subjects that are ancient Roman. Anyway, in the Rome of old, from nomen sprang cognomen, which by adding the "cog" prefix, refers to the third name (akin to family name or surname). And from cognomen sprang the term agnomen, which by replacing the "cog" with "ag," turns it into an additional cognomen, or the fourth name, or a nickname. An agnomen was bestowed upon an ancient Roman for some particular achievement of honor--usually in valor and/or victory in war or some similar monumental feat. And just to complete this Roman nomen series of name-calling, by going back to the front, there's the praenomen, which can be correctly surmised to be the first or given name (pre-Christian-era Christian name) given by one's parents for any run-of-the-mill (cog-in-the-wheel) citizen of Roman society (Josephus blowsephus on the Appian Way?).
An example of how all these four Roman numerical nomens (prae-, “none,” cog-, and ag-) are strung together, and what all this has to do with "nicknames," is in the full name of the famed Scipio the Elder--Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Interestingly, Mr. Scipio (the third name being the surname), among his other exploits, was the Roman general credited with having extricated the Carthaginians (descendants of the seafaring Phoenicians) from the Iberian Peninsula (now ocupado by Spain and Portugal) in the low 200s B.C. by figuratively knocking the famed Hannibal Barca from his equally renowned Alpine-traversing high-horse of an elephant--who some sources claim was to have been named Surus--at a place called Zama. Zama is where Scipio is said to have laid waste, or salted, the fields and in triumph, sent Hannibal barking and his pachyderm packing for home licking out the salt Scipio rubbed in his wounds. Zama was but a few stone's catapults from Hannibal’s hometown of Carthage, in what is modern-day Tunisia. This defeat of the Carthaginians by Rome ended the second of what would be three Punic Wars (the name "Punic" being derived from "Phoenician"). For his victory, Scipio was honored by his countrymen with what some say is the first documented case of a Roman being dubbed with an agnomen (also called an honorific)--that of Africanus—to memorialize this drubbing of Carthage and kicking Hannibal's rectum. The reason for the "Africanus" nickname is that Zuma and Carthage both are on the northern Mediterranean coast of the continent of Africa, or supra-Saharan Africa. Interesting though, is that Hannibal had gone from the desert on an elephant to the snowy Alps and History remembers their names, but not that of the horse Africanus rode in to Zama on.
In any case with respect to the compound word nickname, the "name" is a head of the game.
Split: The Difference While “nomen” has been discussed ad nauseum, above, as being pretty well rooted in the English language in its association with names of various types, "nick," which has come to modify the head word “name,” has come to the tips of our tongue via a wholly different route. “Nick” actually begins its entrée into the lexicon and this discussion as “eke” to form “ekename,” and before that, “eke name.” The word “eke,” mostly used in common language nowadays only as the set up word for “out a living,” comes rooted by way of Middle and Old English from various permutations to mean “to increase,” “to add to,” “to augment,” “to lengthen,” and the like. So “ekename” was kind of an "added name" to one’s nomen, just like the "ag-" came to "-nomen" and the agnomen came to Scipio.
But how did the term “nickname” derive from “eke name?” Ah, this is where hitchhiking comes in; but in this case, linguistically with a slip of the tongue, rather than digitally with a flip of the thumb.
What happened was the term “an eke name” or “an ekename” morphed over the years to “a nekename” and eventually came into common usage as “a nickname.” Essentially, the n from an became detached from and has forsaken the a and has hitched a lingual ride with the eke, which itself had already bummed a ride with the name.
Etymologists--people who "eke out a living" caring about such phonemic phenomena—evidently debate the exact term for this detaching from, and hitching onto, letters from one neighboring word to another. Metathesis, metanalysis, juncture displacement, juncture loss, junctural metanalysis, rebracketing, false splitting, false separation, faulty separation, refactorization, morphological reanalysis, sandhi-verschiebung, agglutination, and mistaken division (aka misdivision--or is it “misty vision?”) are among the long-winded labels for this simple slight of tongue, so to speak. Another example of this letter migration is "newt" (from “an ewt” to “a newt”) and going the other way misdivisionally and herpetologically is "adder" (from “a nadder” to “an adder”). Others include apron (from a napron, to an apron), and “romantically” to English from French is “an umpire” from “a nompere,” and from Spanish is “an orange” from “una naranja” to the Spanglish "a naranja" and on fro there. Another common, colloquial example is “nother,” which comes from “another” to “a nother,” but for which in the hole left between the “a” and the “nother” is usually filled in with “a whole.” But that’s a whole nother story.
This mostly aural-oral give-and-take almost always involves the word an. Grammatically, “an” is an indefinite article, as is its partner “a.” On the other hand, by itself “n” is just a consonant, unless it is used in a mathematical sentence; in which case, statistically it, as in "n - 1" and descriptively, to the nth degree, as is the case of the hitchhiker, has a certain degree of freedom.
And, curiously in English, with respect to pronouncing the word “nickname,” it is one of those times that when the “n” directly follows the “k” in a word, the “k” is actually pronounced (as opposed to knot, know, knee, and knead). Or is it that only the “c” in "nick" is pronounced and the following “k” in front of the “n” is still silent? If so, this is an otherwise “silent misdivision” or perhaps a "cryptomisdivision?" And what about knickknack? I believe that to this point on this point, the linguists are silent, as well.
It Ain't Nicholas Synonyms of or similar words to the term “nickname” can be found in a host of lexicological sources. These include: alias, byname, cognomen, epithet, handle, moniker, sobriquet, tag, anonym, nom de guerre, nom de plume, pen name, pseudonym, and anonymous person. Perhaps these synonyms can also be thought of as nicknames for nickname?
In any case, I always thought it odd that “Nick” is a nickname for Nicholas. The name Nicholas is derived from the Greek, nike, for “victory,” not misdivisionally from “ike,” as in “an ike,” which does not exist. Interestingly though, “Ike” was the nickname of Dwight David Eisenhower who, as the 34th US President, was instrumental in the development of the Interstate roadway system; which is where, at its on-ramps, I have collected most the nicknames discussed and provided herein. I liked Ike, always did, and still do. I liked Ike so much that I chose to be born on his birthday while he was the sitting president working on getting the legislation that would become the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways--or the Eisenhower Interstate System for short, or the Interstates for shorter, or I- for shortest, or in California simply the nickkname "The"--passed through Congress. So, since he’s an Ike I like, I guess there is after all such a thing as “an Ike.” It just has nothing to do with the word “nickname,” other than the fact that the name “Ike” was the nickname for Eisenhower.
I wonder if anyone ever thought to ask President Eisenhower if he actually liked Ike as his nickname. But what I would say to him, among other things he did for the US is, "Thanks for providing a convenient place from which to hitch, Ike."