A sobriquet ( SOH-bri-kay), or soubriquet, is a nickname, sometimes assumed, but often given by another, that is descriptive in nature. Distinct from a pseudonym, a sobriquet is typically a familiar name used in place of a real name, without the need of explanation, often becoming more familiar than the original name.
The term sobriquet may apply to the nickname for a specific person, group of people, or place. Examples are "Emiye Menelik", a name of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, who was popularly and affectionately recognized for his kindness ("emiye" means "mother" in Amharic); "Genghis Khan", who now is rarely recognized by his original name Temüjin; and "Mohandas Gandhi", who is better known as Mahatma Gandhi ("mahatma" means "great soul" in Sanskrit). Well-known places often have sobriquets, such as New York City, often referred to as the "Big Apple".
The modern French spelling is sobriquet. Two early variants of the term are found: soubriquet and sotbriquet. The first early spelling variant, "soubriquet", remains in use and is considered the likely origin.
The second early spelling variant suggests derivation from the initial form sot, foolish, and the second part, briquet, is a French adaptation of Italian brichetto, diminutive of bricco, knave, possibly connected with briccone, rogue, which is supposed to be a derivative of the German brechen, to break; but the philologist Walter William Skeat considers this spelling to be an example of false etymology and argues the real origin should be sought in the form soubriquet.
Émile Littré gives an early-fourteenth-century soubsbriquet as meaning a chuck under the chin, and this would be derived from soubs, mod. sous (Latin: sub), under, and briquet or bruchel, the brisket, or lower part of the throat.
Sobriquets often are found in music, sports, comedy and politics. Candidates and political figures often are branded with sobriquets, either while living or posthumously. For example, president of the United States Abraham Lincoln came to be known as "Honest Abe".
In the A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) Henry Watson Fowler warned: "Now the sobriquet habit is not a thing to be acquired, but a thing to be avoided; & the selection that follows is compiled for the purpose not of assisting but of discouraging it." He included the sobriquet among what he termed the "battered ornaments" of the language, but opinion on their use varies. Sobriquets remain a common feature of speech today.
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