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Old Norse Nicknames
Nicknames, which occur in all cultures and time periods, play a vital role in highlighting identity, and provide a window into popular culture. The function of nicknames in the Middle Ages is peculiar, however, when men (as in medieval Iceland) would kill for a carelessly dropped word if it was considered to be detrimental to their honor, yet often tolerated the most demeaning nicknames. The pool of personal names was limited, thus most people were identified with their nicknames. This circumstance created a trace in the interweaving saga plots where many nicknames recur across works. The quantity of nicknames in Old Norse literature is uniquely rich, and recurring nicknames provide a tool for understanding saga transmission and intertextuality.
Saga nicknames may be ancient, formed earlier in the popular imagination, or fanciful interpretations penned by authors. They may have provided a basis for a character’s biography, and could be used to construct a narrative. Mentions of nicknames arise most often in the narratological circumstances in which they are appropriate, most often in the introduction of a chapter where new individuals and subsequent generations are illuminated. Most nicknames found in the sagas go unexplained, but dozens of passages comment on them. Where nicknames are explained, they most often appear in the narratological conditions of an anecdotal type. Nicknames are also important in providing motivation for actions or behavior (imagined by a saga author or otherwise) that occasionally plays a role in the plot. If a nickname was genuine (even if posthumous), many narratives developed from it and prove a degree of accuracy or inaccuracy in medieval memory and narrative transmission.
Several categories of nicknames are found in Old Norse literature, such as those describing physical features, mental characteristics, or one’s deeds or habits (good or bad). Nicknames could be used in place of a given name in skaldic poetry, functioning similarly to heiti. Nicknames are also substituted for personal names elsewhere, where they may have at some point in oral transmission become better known than the personal name (for example, Snorri and Grettir), and they often were passed down in patronyms (for example, Gísli Súrsson, whose father’s full name was really Þorbjǫrn súrr Þorkelsson). Negative nicknames are rather common, ranging from sexually-charged insults to unflattering physical characteristics, and several nicknames referring to genitals are found in the corpus. Nicknames also appear to have had some currency among Norsemen who raided and settled the British Isles, and many of these nicknames made their way to and from the Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic cultural sphere. Likewise, several nicknames appear in Icelandic literature, primarily genealogies, directly brought into Old Norse via a Celtic-Old Norse language interchange.
The medieval mind seems to have made a distinction between nicknames and hypocorisms (pet-names). One custom consisted of the giving a shortened byname (that is truncated, familiar pet forms) such as Óli for Óláfr and Tósti for Þorsteinn, many of which through frequent use became personal names proper. The other custom consisted of giving a secondary name or agnomen to supplement a given name. It is the latter tradition with which I intend to give a fuller description. In numerous cases this attached name, most often in the form of a weak adjective, could also function as a replacement for the given name, showing that nicknames were just one of several components of an individual’s given name. Since surnames in the medieval period were extremely rare in the North, nicknames were the closest equivalent in that they were often attached to and indistinguishable from a personal name. I will neglect mentioning medieval family names and occupational bynames (that is, titles) in Scandinavia in so much as they do not concern nicknames directly. For this reason, unless there is some distinct reason to discuss occupation bynames (such as konungr, jarl, and the like), such as if there is an additional epithet attached (for example, Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld ‘troublesome poet’), I will treat them as titles, not nicknames. Likewise, bynames which merely reflect geographical origin will not be treated as nicknames unless they suggest that this component of a name contained a meaningful epithet as an identifier of an individual.