How Old Is Mike?

No, no, not the guy you’re thinking of — the nickname Mike. Michael Peverett writes me:

I’m reading the opening chapters of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth (1821). This is a historical novel that takes place some time in the second half of the sixteenth-century in England.

One of the characters who turns up at Giles Gosling’s comfortable country inn The Black Bear is his own nephew, a bad penny who has returned in search of the kind of dirty work that can pay for his various vices. His name is Michael Lambourne but his uncle calls him “Mike”.

And that’s my query. Scott used his extensive knowledge of Jacobean drama to create dialogue with a reasonably convincing sixteenth-century flavour, but I don’t remember coming across the familiar name “Mike” in any literature from that time. (Whereas, on the other hand, my impression was that certain other shortened names seem as old as the hills – Jack, Jill, Nell, Nan, Moll, Will, Hal …)

Which makes me wonder, when was “Mike” first attested (as a familiar name)? Since the OED doesn’t include proper names, how would you and your readers advise researching that question? – Or, mutatis mutandis, the earliest appearance of Ted, Ed, Chris, Sue, Fran, Nick, Larry, Steve….?

An excellent question, thought I, so I’m sharing it with the world at large. How do we find out the age of a nickname? Are there reliable references?


  1. Drew Smith says

    This is where genealogical databases can be of value. For instance, Mike Crosher was married in Lancashire, England, in 1587.

  2. I don’t know, but given the Pat and Mike joke genre, was Michael a distinctively Irish name?

  3. I think the ngram is more likely to be referencing mike as an abbreviation for microphone; the OED’s first citation for mike in this sense is 1927.

    The OED does have Mike as a short form of Michael and gives its earliest citation as 1874.

  4. Well, that can easily be antedated; a quick googling turns up “Mike Maxwell of Gretna” from John Mackay Wilson’s Tales of the Borders (New York, 1851), e.g. here, not to mention the Kenilworth usage mentioned in the post.

  5. J. W. Brewer says

    And how does its antiquity compare to that other nickname for Michael that’s common in Britain & Ireland but much less so in the U.S.? I can find from an 1809 novel by Maria Edgeworth (scene set in Ireland): “He had, sir, a son in England, Mick Noonan, who used to send him odd guineas, mind, and was a good lad to his father, though wild; and there’s been no account of him at all at all this long while” and “Mickey” used as a first name pops up at least by the 1820’s. There’s also “mick” as an ethnic pejorative for “Irishman,” which was extant by at least the latter part of the 19th century (google books has “drunken Micks” in rhymed dialogue from a probably-not-very-highbrow drama from 1880, and I suspect the slur could be antedated past that).

  6. The OED’s entry for Mike is actually specifically as an alternative form of Mick meaning Irishman, not as a general short-form of Michael.

  7. In general, the OED doesn’t define names — there is no entry for Africa, e.g. — but does define ordinary words derived from names, like African. There is an entry for Canada, but it is needed because of the occasional uses of Canadas as short for Canada geese and in the sense ‘shares of the Canadian Pacific Railway’. There are a bunch of compounds given as well.

  8. Thanks all, especially to Hat for publishing my query and of course to Drew for vindicating Scott. The genealogical database proved surprisingly useful considering that most people don’t use nicknames in a parish register; searching on 1500-1600 I found Mike, Nick and Sue, though only once or twice each. Compare Michael (1,000), Susan (10,000), Nicholas (11,000), Mary (40,000), John (170,000).

  9. Age of names can be very tricky.

    Once I was consulting an author who wanted to write a story set in Mongol empire period and I asserted with great authority that popular Mongolian name Dorj is of Tibetan origin and therefore it could not have been a name of Mongolian warrior in 13th century, because Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism only in 16th century.

    And a few days later, rereading Rashid ad-Din’s history I suddenly discovered actual 13th century Mongolian prince, great-grandson of Genghis named exactly Dorj.

    The guy converted to Tibetan Buddhism a few century ahead of his compatriots. Who knew?

  10. I love stories like that.

  11. Mike was commonly used as a shortened version for Michael during the 1890’s, at least in my town. I would say 1850’s – 1870’s probably but possibly before.


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