I name, therefore I am


It was a slur that turned the Anglo-Saxon word ekename ("eke" meaning "also" or "added") into nekename and finally nickname. The idea of a nickname didn't come from English origins, though. They were originally common in ancient Greece and Rome, especially when used as terms of affection, which the Greeks called hupokorisma, meaning "calling by an endearing name."

It was not uncommon for English parents to give their children long names and abbreviate them for ordinary use, which they called "nurse names" - so Harold became Hal and Elizabeth became Betsy.

Nicknames could stand for a special trait as well - Slim, Dolly, Lefty - and sometimes an adult, fond of an endearment, retained his special name over the one on his birth certificate.


Originally, the image of a tree had nothing to do with ancestry. Some 600 years ago, anyone who spoke of his or her family history probably wouldn't have been able to do so without the help of a ... crane's foot.

Pedigree, the old French name for a genealogical chart, comes from pied de grue, literally "foot of a crane," because that's what the chart looked like.

Most early genealogists were French. Standard practice back in the 1400s was to indicate lines of descent with three prongs. The clawlike, three-branched marks used to show succession strongly resembled the imprint of a crane's foot - hence the word pedigree.

People's blueblooded or "pedigreed" pets eventually had their own charts. By the early 17th century, the term pedigree was applied to the ancestry of animals. And, in time, from the foot of a bird came the spreading, full-branched tree we know today as the family tree, or pedigree.

SOURCES: 'Word Mysteries and Histories,' by the editors of American Heritage Dictionaries; 'The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology,' by Robert K. Barnhart; 'Why You Say It,' by Webb Garrison; 'The Story Behind the Words,' by Morton Freeman; 'Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins,' by W. and M. Morris; 'The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology,' by Robert K. Barnhart; 'The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,' by Robert Hendrickson.

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