Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Jane Austen's family probably called her Jenny

When Mrs. Austen sent a letter announcing that they had had a girl, she added, "and we shall call her Jenny." From this, I conclude, that is probably what her family called her, at least some of the time. Perhaps not. Perhaps they thought of her as a Jenny when she was little but it didn't stick. Nicknames are like that in my experience. You can't always say what they are going to be. Still, I like to think of Jane Austen being called Jenny in an endearing way by her mum, and maybe others in her family. It brings her to life in my mind anyway.

We don't usually think of Jenny as a nickname for Jane. Most people think of Jenny as a nickname for Jennifer, but that is a recent invention, as people didn't used to be called Jennifer, generally speaking. I also know that Jenny was used as a nickname for Jane because my great-great-grandmother was called Jane, and she went by Jenny.

Anna Maxwell Martin and Anne Hathaway as Cassandra and Jane Austen.
Think of me what you will; I love this movie.
Although people in public used to call each other "Miss such-and-such," and not just their first name, or Christian name as it was then called, younger, unmarried sisters still heard their names used a lot in public. Only the oldest unmarried sister (in this case Cassandra Austen) would always have been called Miss Austen. Jane Austen would have been called Miss Jane Austen, or simply Miss Jane by closer acquaintances, unless her older sister wasn't there, in which case she could be safely called Miss Austen without any confusion. The Bennett sisters were Miss Bennett, Miss Elizabeth Bennett, Miss Catherine Bennett, etc. The Dashwood sisters were Miss Dashwood, Miss Marianne Dashwood and Miss Margaret Dashwood.

I don't think Jane Austen would ever have been called Miss Jenny, at least not in public. The mix of formality and familiarity does not seem right to me, but if you have differing information, please put it in the comments. I could be wrong. Elizabeth Bennett is sometimes called Miss Eliza, but never Miss Lizzy, except by her mother.

Speaking of nicknames, the word "nickname" has an unexpected origin. It actually began as a bit of a mistake, as so many words do. Originally it was "ein ickename" meaning "an other-name" but the "n" got stuck to the beginnig, so we started saying essentially "a nickname" instead of "an ickname."

We begin to see this same process happening with the insertion of words into phrases using "another." You might hear people say, "that's a whole nother thing," and the like. I decry this, but what can you do? Perhaps someone centuries ago was decrying the nickname.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Buy the Book

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