About Names: “Sonny a famous nickname with a long lineage”

Jazz musician Sonny Rollins (Photo by Yves Moch, CC-BY-3.0)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his February 13th column, he looks at the history of the name Sonny.

Omaha has a new favorite Sonny.

The male elephant born to mother Claire at Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium Jan. 30 has been named Sonny by an anonymous donor. Half-sister Eugenia was born Jan. 7 to mother Kiki and father Callee.

Sonny’s a diminutive of “son” used to address boys or men younger than oneself. Though “son” goes back millennia to ancient Indo-European, “sonny” is surprisingly recent. The earliest example is found in 1833.

It’s hard to tell when Sonny became a nickname. It looks a lot like Lonny in 19th-century handwriting, and census takers sometimes used it for an unknown name. The 1860 census of Bloomington, Illinois, includes a German immigrant family with parents Daddy and Mammy and two boys both called Sonny. The census taker probably couldn’t understand their real names.

Exactly when the nickname became an official name is also unclear. Sonny first appeared on Social Security’s yearly name lists in 1888. However, Social Security only began in 1935, and only since the 1980s has everyone gotten a Social Security card as an infant. Many born before 1970 didn’t enter the data until they were going by a nickname which wasn’t given at birth.

It’s probable boys were being officially named Sonny by 1920, though, because the name starts showing pop culture influences. The first big boom in Sonnys began in 1928, when Al Jolson’s hit song “Sonny Boy” premiered, sung by a father whose little son “made a heaven for me here on earth.” Sonny first peaked at 470th in 1935.