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William=>Bill
Posted: 23 February 2011 06:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Dave Wilton - 21 February 2011 04:47 PM

Names are a specialized field and I don’t have any resources on them.

The standard source for English given names is The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names by E.G. Withycombe.  It is sadly out of print, and well worth grabbing if you find a copy.

As for the question at hand, and moving from the general to the specific, there are several Middle English patterns of nickname formation.  The major ones were the addition of a fixed suffix, with -cock and -kin being the most common; shortening of the name through apocope or, less often, syncope; and rhyming, either of the original Christian name or of another nickname.

Put these together and you have the explanation for many English nicknames, as well as more than a few surnames.  The -cock and -kin suffixes long since died out in nickname practice, but survive in surnames.  So, for example, the surname “Wilcox” is a patronymic genitive of “Wilcock”, which in turn is a nickname form of “William”.

As for the specific question of “Bill” from “William,” this form is not attested from the Middle Ages.  On the other hand, these forms were distinctly lower class, and it is possible that it existed without a record surviving.  Also, there are a couple of surnames, e.g. “Bilson,” which suggest the nickname existed.  On the gripping hand, there are other possible etymologies.  So take your pick” either “Bill” is an old nickname for “William” which went under the radar for several centuries before surging into popularity, or it is a modern example (or imitation) of an old pattern in English.

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Posted: 24 February 2011 04:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I just found the The Dictionary of First Names (OUP, 2006) online at the U of T library. It has this to say about Bill:

Altered short form of William, not used before the 19th century. The reason for the change in the initial consonant is not clear, but it conforms to the pattern regularly found when English words beginning with w- are borrowed into Gaelic.

I don’t know about the “not used before the 19th century” part. That seems to be flat out wrong to me. But the idea that Bill may be an Irish or Scottish form is interesting.

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Posted: 24 February 2011 08:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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I don’t know about the “not used before the 19th century” part. That seems to be flat out wrong to me.

Are you suggesting that the OUP book made it up out of thin air?  Presumably they have citations, and we all know how much our native intuitions are worth.

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Posted: 24 February 2011 08:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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There are cites in the OED for billy, in the sense of “fellow,” dating to the sixteenth century, as well as numerous cites of Willie from the eighteenth (interestingly most from Scottish sources). I have no problem with Bill becoming popular in the nineteenth century, that is certainly true, but I’m skeptical of an absolute claim it did not exist prior to that.

Searching on Bill turns up all sorts of false hits, so it’s not easy. I’ve been trying various strategies on the Eighteenth Century Collections Online database, but the server is acting up and returning lots of error messages. I may have to put it off until later.

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Posted: 24 February 2011 09:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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Dr. Techie - 23 February 2011 11:52 AM

Look, I didn’t just pull my original suggestion out of my ass.

I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that you did, and it’s surely the correct explanation for names such as Nancy, Nell and so on. All I was trying to say - badly, obviously - was that we’re still short of a theory for Ted.

I’m also unconvinced by the “Irish” theory for Bill, since the long Irish form of William was/is Uilliam, which I believe is pronounced “illiam”, no W or B involved, and the short form of the name in Irish is, of course, Liam.

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Posted: 24 February 2011 11:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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I don’t know about the “not used before the 19th century” part. That seems to be flat out wrong to me.

It is wrong. In his celebrated diary, the 18th-century parson James Woodforde consistently refers to his nephew William Woodforde as “Bill”. The earliest example I can find offhand in my (heavily abridged) version was in 1776, when“Bill” was 18 years old (he was born in 1758). It seems to me more likely that his family were continuing to call him by the name that they had always used, rather than having started calling him by a diminutive after he reached adulthood. So that potentially pushes the form back to the 1760s.

FWIW, the Woodfordes came from Northamptonshire and Somerset; they had no Scottish or Irish connections that I or this site know of.

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Posted: 24 February 2011 03:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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I apologize if I seemed testy.  Requests for evidence are never inappropriate.

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