Q From Andrew Purkiss: Your use of moniker in a recent newsletter in the delightful phrase “grandly Latinate moniker fumage” started me thinking. I’ve heard the word many times in the last fifty years, and even used it myself, but don’t recall seeing it in print. All that the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD) can offer, spelling it with or without a c in the middle, is “19th century, origin unknown”. I feel sure that you can do better than the COD in telling us the origin of the word!
A I can write a lot more, and propose to do so, but I have to warn you that my conclusion is pretty much the same as the pithy note in the Concise.
Moniker has had so many spellings that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Jonathon Green gives 14 in The Cassell Dictionary of Slang, for example. This variability is a sure sign the word was for long passed from person to person in speech rather than in writing. The first known written example is from 1851, in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, in which Mayhew gives it as monekeer. It was recorded in the Sydney Slang Dictionary in Australia in 1881, spelled monniker, and seems to have reached the USA not long after. This may imply that it was a London term, exported by migrants. Most slang writers, including Eric Partridge and Jonathon Green, suggest it was originally tramps’ slang. As a moniker was often, even usually, an assumed name or nickname, this is plausible.
There are as many suggestions of its origin as there are variants on its name, though few of them sound even marginally convincing. A long list of them is given in Paul Beale’s 1984 revision of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Some early forms have suggested to writers that it might be from monarch, the idea being that it is one’s name that partly rules one’s life. One learned proposal was that it was ekename (an ancient term for a nickname, from eke, additional — a relative of eke out — which changed to nickname through a shift of the n in an ekename) that was converted into moniker by backslang. A further idea is that that it comes from the saintly name Monica. Others link it to one or other of a pair of Italian words, which is just possible if we assume that it’s old enough to have entered slanguage via Lingua Franca. The association with tramps has led some writers to find a source in Shelta, an ancient secret language used by Irish and Welsh tinkers and gypsies, in which it would be derived from Irish ainm, name (support for this is in The Secret Languages of Ireland by R A Stewart Macalister, dated 1937, which gives munika as one form of the Shelta word.)
Expert opinion, for which you may read “guesswork” if you like, is leaning towards a blend of monogram with signature, largely because moniker can mean someone’s John Hancock.