English: Painting of Bess of Hardwick

The evergreen Elizabeth has given rise to plenty of short forms. Would this one stand on its own?

Thanks to BC for suggesting Bess as our Baby Name of the Day.

You will meet women named just Eliza and Beth, but chances are that if you meet a Bess, she’s really Elizabeth or Elisabeth. Bess last charted in the US Top 1000 as an independent given name in 1927. Bessie fared slightly better – she hung on until 1975.

But In 2012, short forms like Tess and Millie feel fresh, and decidedly separate from longer forms like Theresa or Mildred. Mad Men has boosted Betty. And with all these boys wearing names last fashionable in the Colonial era, even Betsy feels at home with Nate and Sam. Does Bess fit in their company, too?

She has more history than most. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s childhood was tumultuous. Dad had mom executed when Elizabeth was a few months shy of her third birthday. Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. But despite these trials, she still received an outstanding education, and survived the reigns of her half-brother Edward and half-sister Mary.

If Bess was a nickname used in her household, it isn’t recorded. Instead, Good Queen Bess was a popular way to refer to the monarch, whose rule is often characterized as a golden age, capped by the English defeat of the Spanish Armada.

But it was also a nickname in use at the time:

  • Bess of Hardwick, also christened Elizabeth, was a few years older than the queen. The much-married noblewoman ended her days as Countess of Shrewsberry, but she’s best known for the stately homes she built with the fortune she amassed, as well as the extraordinary collection of textiles she helped create during her life.

Other women at court during the Elizabethan era shared the name. It was very common to be named after a godparent, parent, or other close relation. This narrowed the name pool – and surely must have increased the reliance on diminutive forms.

It’s tough to know for certain which Elizabeths answered to Bess, but here are a few:

  • The future Duchess of Devonshire, Elizabeth Cavendish – known as Bess – was part of a scandalous love triangle with William and Georgiana – the Duke and his first wife. Hayley Atwell played Bess in the 2008 movie about Georgiana, The Duchess.
  • George Gershwin, his brother Ira, and husband-and-wife team DuBose and Dorothy Heyward get credit for the enduring Porgy & Bess. The folk opera first debuted in 1935. The Heywards had titled the original novel and play just Porgy. But Bess, his love interest, has been part of the title for years.
  • Another Elizabeth-called-Bess would marry Harry Truman, and so become the First Lady of the United States in 1945.
  • One of Nancy Drew’s BFFs is Bess Marvin, usually described as soft-hearted and easily frightened – the opposite of Nancy and the other member of their trio, tomboy George.

This takes us to 2012, when Bess sounds like a throwback. But a throwback to what era, precisely? She was most popular as an independent name in the 1880s and 1890s, along with Emma and Clara, Alice and Grace – but also Ethel and Bertha, Minnie and Ruth. Just because some made a comeback doesn’t mean that all of them will.

The safe path is, of course, to pen Elizabeth or Elisabeth on the birth certificate, and just call your girl Bess. But with all this history behind her, Bess could stand on her own.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. My name is Bess (not short for Elizabeth) and I’ve grown to love it. I’m in my mid-thirties and still am called Beth a lot (a name I’ve grown to dislike). We named our daughter Elsa because it is similarly short, old fashioned, and has the same root meaning.

  2. I know an Elizabeth who goes by Bess. She’s a teenager now and all I’ve ever known her by is Bess. Elizabeth has so many great nicknames!