April 18, 2007

Political hypocoristics

There are many political differences between the French and American presidential election campaigns now underway, but I was struck recently by a linguistic difference. The two leading candidates in France, Nicholas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, both have nicknames -- what linguists sometimes call hypocoristics -- that are in common use, for example in newspaper headlines. The current hit count on news.google.fr for Sarko is 1,041, and for Ségo, 325. Even François Bayrou, whose last name is already a two-syllable form similar to those typical of French hypocoristics -- shows up as "Bayro" from time to time. In contrast, I can't think of any common nicknames created from the last names of any of the American front-runners: Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, Romney, etc. (Giuliani has always gone by "Rudy" more than "Rudolph", but that's a completely different sort of thing.)

Anyhow, I wondered about the extent and the history of political nicknames in France, so I asked Jean Véronis. Here's a slightly edited form of my questions and his answers.

I see that in the current election, some of the candidates have two-syllable nicknames ending in /o/ (Ségo, Sarko), and even Bayrou, whose name is already two syllables, has an analogous formation "Bayro".

Is this new? I don't remember similar nicknames for Chirac (oh, wait, was he sometimes "Jacquot"?) or Mitterand or De Gaulle (oops, I guess he was "le grand Charlot").

I don't think that nicknames are new in French politics. I remember a few : Nikita Kroutchev = Kroukrou, Georges Pompidou = Pompon, Raymond Barre = Babar, Pierre Bérégovoy = Béré, etc.

Chirac → Chichi, or le Chi
Mitterrand → Tonton
de Gaulle → le grand Charles, le grand Charlot, "qui vous savez" (Canard Enchaîné pretending that they feared censorship)

But what about Le Pen, Bové, etc.?

None that I know of.

How far back does this go? Where does it come from? Does everyone in France have a secret two-syllable nickname in -/o/? Is this related to the informal quasi-abbreviations like "bachot" for "baccalauréat"?

Suffixation is very old in proper names. It goes back to the Middle Ages, and is actually one of the major mechanism for patronyms. Typically, people would keep the last syllable of a name, and add –o (-eau, -aud, -ault), - in, -eu(x), -et, -ou (x, d…), -ard (or –art) (-/o/ is only one mechanism). Raymond would become Mondet, Mondon, Thibauld would become Baudet, baudin, Baudon, Baudart, etc. These are still common family names.

Suffixation to form nicknames is still very common these days, although it seems that people tend to keep the whole orginal name instead of truncting to the last syllable :

Jean → Jeannot
Paul → Paulo
Marc → Marco
Jacques → Jacquot

Funny to realize that what we call "diminutifs" (the French word for nick name) sometimes lengthen the word (as in Jeannot, Paulo, Marco).

It is only one of the mechanisms. I've seen

* Duplication of one of the name syllables :

André → Dédé
Gérard → Gégé
Monique → Momo
Lucien → Lulu
Louis → Loulou
Gisèle → Gigi
Joël → Jojo

* Truncation (possibly with change of vowel)

Marguerite → Margot
Marjorie → Marjo
Raphaelle → Raphie
Danielle → Dany
Véronique → Véro

Obviously, there is a strong tendancy to aim at two-syllable nicknames, ending with a vowel. However, I think that there is a recent growing trend for one-syllable nicknames, ending with a consonnant :

Sébastien → Seb
Delphine → Delph
Fabrice → Fab
Camille → Cam
Xavier → Xav

I don't think that we were doing these when we were kids. Influence of English though movies, celebrities, etc.?

There's quite a bit of linguistic literature on this sort of thing -- e.g. Nicole Nelson, "Mixed Anchoring in French Hypocoristic Formation", RuLing I, 1998 -- but I remain curious about the socio-political aspect, and in particular why American political nicknames seem to be relatively rare, and mostly first-name forms (e.g. "Abe") or initials ("FDR", "JFK") rather than last-name forms (like "Ike").

[John Cowan writes:

English isn't big on diminutives (unlike the Romance languages, or for that matter Scots); and in any case, shortening of political names in American English is chiefly driven by the needs of headline writers: thus we had JFK, LBJ, HHH, but never RMN, because "Nixon" has a headline width of 2+0.5+1+1+1 = 5.5, whereas "RMN" has a headline width of 2+2+2 = 6.

My favorite French hypocoristics are Didi and Gogo for Vladimir and Estragon in _Waiting for Godot_ (although I wish that when Beckett translated the play he had made them Vladdie and Tarrie instead).


[Fabio Montermini writes:

I read with interest your recent post about the fashionable way of referring to French politicians through hypochoristics. Living in France, being a morphologist, and having myself studied hypocoristics and clippings in some languages, I may give you some impressions on the matter. Certainly, Sarko and Ségo are the most popular of the nicknames politicians have had in French history. I feel this is due to the fact that both names are quite long and their second syllable is open and ends in a /o/. Bisyllabicity and the (pseudo?)-suffix -o are in fact the two optimal features such nicknames should have in French. Moreover, these two nicknames often form a rhyming couple. That's the reason, I guess, why you find sometimes Bayro. In fact, on Google, the first occurrences of Bayro you find are all ones in which this nickname is associated to the two previous. Coming to semantico-pragmatic factors, the clipping plus the -o suffix usually express connivance, closeness, and sometimes diminution of the nominee. You may find it also with common nouns (proprio = propriétaire 'owner', dirlo = directeur). That's why you largely find them in political ads, common speech or satirical journals, as Le Canard Enchaîné, but rarely on Le Monde or Le Figaro (except in quotations). I signal you that the same connivance may be expressed with an acronym, as in the English JFK: e.g. DSH is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and MHM is Michelle Alliot Marie (this is especially true for people who have double first names, and on Google you find some JMLP for Jean-Marie Le Pen).

As to the fact that Romance languages are much more incline to diminutives, as an Italian, I may do a comparison between Italian and French habits on the matter. Italian has lots of nicknames, but the only nickname for a politician I can think of is Berlusca (which has a typical Milanese ending) for Berlusconi. In Italian newspapers the same connivance which is expressed by Sarko and Ségo is expressed by referring to politicians just through their first name, so Silvio is Berlusconi, Romano is Prodi, Massimo is D'Alema and so on...I guess this habit was first applied to politicians who have or had quite rare first names, such as Bettino Craxi or Ciriaco De Mita, but has nowadays been quite largely extended to all politicians, if they are known enough. The difference with France is that also high level newspapers, as La Repubblica or Il Corriere della Sera systematically recur to this strategy.


[Fev from Headsup: theblog writes:

Most US papers don't clip pols' names, but both the New York tabloids refer to Eliot Spitzer as "Spitz" in heds. Does Le Monde do Sego/Sarko, or is that restricted to the lower-prestige fishwraps?

A search of Le Monde's site turns up several examples of "Sarko" in headlines, but always in quotes: "Sarko mot à mot" : un documentaire inédit sur Internet"; "Le Petit prince du raï baba devant « Sarko »; etc.; and likewise for Sego: « Je me bouche les oreilles, j'éteins la télé, et je vote Ségo ».

I only see the tabs on line anymore, but it looks like first names are a more common way of shortening names there: "COULD BE A HIL, RUDY DUSTUP ON AIR AT WTC."

Unrelatedly, I think John Cowan and I learned to write heds from different eds:

English isn't big on diminutives (unlike the Romance languages, or for that matter Scots); and in any case, shortening of political names in American English is chiefly driven by the needs of headline writers: thus we had JFK, LBJ, HHH, but never RMN, because "Nixon" has a headline width of 2+0.5+1+1+1 = 5.5, whereas "RMN" has a headline width of 2+2+2 = 6

I get 5 counts for both:
Nixon = 1.5+0.5+1+1+1
RMN = 2+1.5+1.5

What's at issue with the sums is a traditional way of approximating the width of strings in proportional-width fonts, discussed for example here, where the cited rules do match Fev's sums rather than John's. ]

[On the subject of nicknames that are longer than their original, Karen Davis writes:

I vividly remember to this day my first introduction to that concept, back when I was a child. The actor Alejandro Rey was on some TV game show, possibly Password? -- at any rate, the host made some comment about how long a name Alejandro was and jokingly asked him what nickname his mother called him. His reply? "Alejandrito."


[Jay Livingston writes:

When I read "Sarko," I immediately thought: New York Post.

The New York tabloids seem to have a limit of about five letters for names. If the surname isn't amenable to shortening, they'll use the first name. That's why it's RUDY and not Giuliani. When Bill Clinton was president, he was PREZ. The current candidate Clinton is often HILL. Jesse Jackson is JAX, Michael Jackson is JACKO. When (or if) Romney becomes better known (I'm not sure he's ever been in a Post or News front page headline) he'll most likely be MITT. Obama is only five letters, albeit wide ones, so that may be a problem, maybe not.


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 18, 2007 02:31 PM