Wednesday, May 30, 2007

In a Word: Sobriquet

Wikipedia says, "A sobriquet is a nickname or a fancy name, usually a familiar name given by others as distinct from a pseudonym assumed as a disguise, but a nickname which is familiar enough such that it can be used in place of a real name without the need of explanation. This salient characteristic, that is, of sufficient familiarity, is most easily noted in cases where the sobriquet becomes more familiar than the original name for which it was formed as an alternative. For example, Genghis Khan, who is rarely recognized now by his original name "Temüjin"; and the British Whig party, which acquired its sobriquet from the British Tory Party as an insult."

How is this different from a nickname?

Again, Wikipedia: "A nickname is a short, clever, cute, derogatory, or otherwise substitute name for a person or thing's real name (for example, Bob, Rob, Robby, Robbie, Robi, Bobby, Rab, Bert, Bertie, Butch, Bobbers, Bobert, Beto, Bobadito, and Robban (in Sweden), are all short for Robert). As a concept, it is distinct from both pseudonym and stage name, and also from title (for example, City of Fountains), although there may be overlap in these concepts."

I don't get it. If Bob is a nickname for Robert, then it sounds to me like Bob could also be a sobriquet. Maybe nickname is the genus, and all of the others -- pseudonyms, stage names, sobriquets, etc. -- are all types of nicknames. Except I always thought that nicknames were given to people and not just assumed by them, as in that cliché found in hardboiled fiction of the fat guy named Tiny or the tall guy named Shorty.

Any ideas? Anyone have the OED?

Language can be so messy.


qwertz said...

OED not so helpful:

nickname -
a. A name or appellation added to, or substituted for, the proper name of a person, place, &c., usually given in ridicule or pleasantry.
b. A familiar form of a Christian name.

sobriquet -
a. An epithet; a nickname.

Being Wikipedia, the two articles were probably not written by the same person, or with any reference to one another. The 'nickname' article appears to focus on the "familiar form of a Christian name" meaning, and the 'sobriquet' article seems to follow the convention of using fancy words for fancy people; Average Joseph has a nickname, while Diana, Princess of Wales has a sobriquet.


Adrian Hester said...

According to the usage note for sysnonyms of "name" at AHD, a sobriquet is a nickname that is particularly picturesque or humorous.

Toiler said...

You're right, Qwertz: not so helpful. But I won't blame the OED. Like I say, language can be messy.

Since both Wikipedia and American Heritage mention the fancy aspect of a sobriquet, I'll leave it at that.

This does bring up a wider issue, though: Nuance seems to be one of the first fatalities in the Left's war on Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic.

I've noticed that with the drop in literacy in our culture, most people still can read books and magazines if they choose to. Even so, the subtlety and power of meaning in our language is evaporating.

(Don't know whether this applies to sobriquet, but it's handy for a seque.)