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What do the names Roni, Tzipi, Yuli, Buji, Avi, Rafi and Ami have in common? No, they're not characters in a children's book. They're nicknames for ministers in the previous cabinet. Their parents named them Aharon, Tzipora, Yael, Isaac, Abraham, Raphael and Amichai, but their nicknames are so familiar that no one uses their given names, sometimes even in official documents.

In contrast, in Israel's first cabinet, no ministers were known by a nickname. That custom only came into fashion in the 1980s with the media adopting the names Arik (Sharon), Roni (Milo) and Yossi (Beilin).

According to research by linguist Dr. Ruth Burstein of the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem, this phenomenon reflects sociolinguistic change in Israel over the past generation. In the early decades of the state, the use of nicknames was confined to family and friends. But recently, "certain names have caught on completely and even appear in official publications, especially Avi, Eli and Dani," Burstein says.

"People in their 20s don't even know the difference between a full first name and a nickname. For example, I interviewed young people who did not know Itzik was a nickname. Here it's possible that the family name of the previous Knesset speaker, Dalia Itzik, may have had an effect."

The change has also been felt in the classroom. In the 1950s and '60s, teachers did not address their pupils by a nickname. Eventually, however, expressing distance in this way gave way to demonstrations of friendship and superficial closeness even among strangers, which also affects the language of address, Burstein says.

"The use of a nickname to address a person of high station gives people using the nickname the feeling they know the individual personally and are close to him," she says.

Burstein, who presented her research yesterday at a conference at David Yellin, said she based it in part on an analysis of names in Haaretz death notices. She found that 90 percent of the first names of the deceased adults were given in full, 8 percent of the time a nickname was given in parentheses, and 2 percent of the time only the nickname was given.

Among the sons and daughters of the deceased whose names appeared in the notices, 40 percent were nicknames. However, when it came to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the deceased, less than 5 percent were mentioned by their nicknames. "There is an effort today to give children very beautiful names and to keep them in their original form," Burstein says.

How does an Israeli nickname come into being? Burstein found that each generation has its own style. At the beginning of the 20th century it was common to add a suffix from Yiddish or Slavic languages to the Hebrew name; for example, Rivkale, Haimke or Shmulik. Burstein says these monikers are on their way out.

Nowadays the more common nicknames among adults end with an "i," with or without shortening the name, giving us Tali, Dadi, Rami, Yoni and Kobi. "In the United States, names with 'i' at the end indicate childishness or are considered diminutives. Children and sometimes women are given these names. But in Israel they have no negative connotation," Burstein says.

Instead, a new kind of diminutive is being used. "Today we're going back to a shortening of names, which is very common in other languages. In the days of the Palmach [pre-state strike force] they made Ben-Tzion into Bentz, and Yossi became Yos," Burstein says. A present-day example, she adds, is Daf for Dafna.