He’s saintly, shaggy and sounds quite smart.
Thanks to Susan for suggesting Bernard as Name of the Day.
Back in the Middle Ages, Bernard was a popular pick amongst German speakers. The Old English Beornheard appears in the historical record even earlier. The Normans were fans, too. And from the 19th century, right up through World War II, Bernard was among the Top 100 names in the US, peaking at #45 in 1919, and again in 1921.
He comes from the Germanic elements bern – bear – and hard – brave. But for many, Bernard conjures up not bears, but dogs.
That’s thanks to Saint Bernard of Menthon. Born in the tenth century, he joined a monastery and quickly rose through the ranks. Bernard’s work kept him in the Alps, during an era when the faithful made pilgrimages to Rome via the treacherous Alpine passes. Bernard founded a monastery and hospice at the highest point of the pass. While he named the structure after Saint Nicholas, it quickly became known for its founder.
The founder’s name also inspired the name of the pass. Pilgrims ventured through the Great St. Bernard Pass, took shelter at the St. Bernard Hospice and probably petted a St. Bernard dog. The pups trace their roots to working dogs in use for centuries in the Swiss Alps – once upon a time, they were called Alpenmastiff. Tales of their rescue efforts are legend. And while the monks swear that no St. Bernard has ever carried a cask of brandy around his neck, the popular image includes the giant dog adorned with a small barrel on his collar.
Today, St. Bernard is patron saint of the Alps – and skiers, too.
But he’s not the only saintly Bernard. There’s also the twelfth century Bernard of Cluny, known for penning De Contemptu Mundi – a diatribe against moral failings of his day.
The most distinguished bearer of the name was probably Bernard of Clairvaux, a key figure in the Cistercian religious order. He was called upon to settle a disputed papal election, took part in the Second Council of the Lateran, preached against a variety of heresies and promoted the Crusades. He’s considered a doctor of the Roman Catholic church.
Depending on the pronunciation you choose – bare NAHR, BER nerd, ber NARD – the name can sound distinguished. But nowadays, you’re most likely to hear any Bernard called Bernie, as in:
- The Original Kings of Comedy member Bernie Mac, known for his role in Ocean’s Eleven;
- Songwriter Bernie Taupin, famous for collaborating with Elton John;
- In the 1989 movie Weekend at Bernie’s, boss Bernie Lomax dies at his beach house. Wackiness ensues.
While Bernard has never been out of the Top 1000, he’s fallen hard in recent years, ranking #940 in 2008. The name could be considered a classic, but he’s not an evergreen choice like William or John. Instead, he’s more like Walter or Clarence – popular in the past, but it would take a daring parent to revive him today.