Thanks to Leslie for suggesting Bernadette as our Baby Name of the Day.
Bernadette was once in steady use in the US. That’s probably due to two things: the popularity of her masculine form, Bernard, and the Catholic mystic born Marie-Bernarde in Lourdes, France.
Let’s start with Bernard. His meaning in a combination of bern, bear, and hard, meaning brave or hardy. Brave as a bear – that’s pretty fierce. He traveled to England with the Norman invaders, was boosted by the twelfth century Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and charted in the US Top 100 from the nineteenth century into the 1940s. Today he’s out of favor – neither fierce nor saintly, but just sort of fusty and dated.
Marie-Bernarde is another story. Born a poor miller’s daughter in the foothills of the Pyrenees, there was nothing remarkable about her early life. She spoke a regional dialect, and would have been known as Bernadette or Bernadeta for every day use. At the age of fourteen, she was out gathering firewood near the now-famous grotto when her first vision took place. Two other girls were with her, but neither saw anything. Bernadette would have seventeen more visions, creating a sensation in her village. Some dismissed her as mad, but over time the Catholic Church validated her statements. Lourdes has become a major pilgrimage site – and a starbaby name sensation, thanks to Madonna.
The events unfolded in 1858, and she was canonized in 1933. Lourdes was often in the news in between, as was the saint. Jennifer Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Saint Bernadette in 1943. The movie was based on a successful bestseller, a semi-biographical novel published the year before called The Song of Bernadette.
Bernadette is better-used than you might guess:
- In 1880, she ranked #628.
- By the 1890s, she was in the 400s.
- In the 1910s, she climbed in the 300s, where she’d stay for more than two decades.
- The year after Saint Bernadette was canonized, the name reached #252.
- The novel and the film boosted her into the US Top 200 for a few years.
But she’s been on the decline for ages. You might think of The Four Tops’ hit single “Bernadette,” or maybe Broadway and Hollywood star Bernadette Peters. There’s also Good Times star Bern Nadette Stanis – born Bernadette, but known by the separated name professionally.
The small screen also gives us The Big Bang Theory’s Bernadette. Her backstory is that she comes from a very Catholic family. The writers nailed it – should you meet a Bernadette today, chances are good that her family is Catholic, and the name was given in honor of the saint.
Besides her spiritual cred, Bernadette has appeal:
- She’s French, and while she’s out of favor in France, so are many of the names Americans currently consider stylish.
- The -ette ending works for Bridget and Juliet.
- Nancy called her a “girl name for parents who don’t like girl names” – a compromise between Belinda and Blair.
- Besides the boyish Bernie or Benny, retro Betty could also be a nickname, or the jazzy Etta.
No wonder Catholic parents continue to use Bernadette. The wonder is that more parents don’t consider her.