He’s been little heard in the US for generations. Does that make him an underused gem – or one best left to obscurity?
Thanks to Paul for suggesting Bertram as Name of the Day.
The most famous Bertram might just be Bertram Wilberforce Wooster – a.k.a. Bertie Wooster, of PG Wodehouse’s beloved Jeeves & Wooster series. If you haven’t read them, they’re lighthearted comedies about an early 20th century English gentleman and his gentleman’s gentlemen, the indomitable Jeeves.
Bertie gets into all sorts of trouble, sometimes with the assistance of Aunts Dahlia and Agatha. No matter the mishap – an unintended engagement, trouble with a silver cow creamer and so on – Jeeves manages to save the day.
The books inspired a BBC adaptation, with Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie playing Bertie. (You also know Hugh as Dr. Gregory House on television. While his American accent is convincing, he’s actually English.)
Of course, the adventures of a good-hearted but bumbling fictional character are not enough to encourage use of a name. Or discourage, for that matter. During Bertie Wooster’s heyday, Bertram ranked in the 300s and 400s in the US. That’s not popular, but it is far from obscure.
He also has a lovely meaning. From the Germanic elements behrt – bright – and hraban – raven – the name implies wisdom. While ravens today conjure up Edgar Allen Poe and professional football, once upon a time, a raven’s image was akin to an owl – wise.
Besides Wooster, famous Bertrams include:
- A character from Shakespeare’s All Well That Ends Well;
- A late fourteenth century German painted known as Master Bertram;
- The French version of the name – Bertrand – brings up the saintly eleventh century Bertrand, formerly Bishop of Comminges, in France;
- The fourteenth century Pope Clement V was born Bertrand;
- There’s also English philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Both the French and English versions are sometimes seen as a surname, also spelled Bartram.
While Bertram was in steady use for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was fading by the 1940s. Rare is the Baby Boomer named Bertram. And a Generation Xer would be truly unusual. Bertram left the US Top 1000 entirely after 1970, just months after Bert made his debut on Sesame Street. It’s impossible to link the two – Bertram was well on his way to obscurity by the time the Children’s Television Workshop named their now famous charaacters. But it surely didn’t help parents reimagine the name, either.
In fact, Bert has fared better than Bertram over the years, ranking in the Top 100 back in the nineteenth century. Add in Herbert, Robert, Albert and Burt and he was once fairly common.
I’m divided on how well he might wear today. Everything old is new again, and Bertie seems like a fabulous nickname for a small boy. But would Bert be a burden?
I’ll leave that to the discussion.