It’s a common dilemma: you love the formal name, but dislike the obvious nickname. Or you adore the nickname, but wonder if the full version is too much.
This was our position when Katharine suggested Gilbert as today’s Name of the Day. Gil is fabulous, but was Gilbert really ready for a comeback?
There’s really no good way to get to Gil besides Gilbert. Gilligan conjures up the white-hat wearing castaway of sitcom fame. Gillespie might be an option, with jazz great Dizzy Gillespie as an inspiration – but that feels a bit much. The Biblical place name Gilead might work, but again, it’s a stretch.
So we return to Gilbert. Good old Gilbert! He’s never been out of the Top 1000 in the US, though he’s arguably fallen from fashion in recent decades, along with Albert, Hubert and Egbert. (Okay, Egbert was never super trendy.) And, of course, Dilbert is the hapless office worker of comic strip fame. Robert is the only ends-in-bert name that has never left the Top 100, and even he currently comes in at #47 – his lowest ebb in popularity since the rankings began.
All those “bert” endings derive from a Germanic element, beraht or beorht, meaning bright or shining. The “gil” comes from the Germanic gisel, borrowed from the Celtic giall, meaning pledge. If “pledge bright” is a little too cleaning product for you, string the bits together and you arrive at something like “bright oath” or “shining promise.” That sounds valiant, even if it’s a little imprecise.
Gilbert was one of many names the Normans brought to England, and it’s been in steady use ever since, popping up in the historical record as a first and last name. The 12th century Norman Earl of Pembroke was Gilbert de Clare. Fast-forward to the Victorian era and W.S. Gilbert collaborated with Arthur Sullivan on a string of popular comedies. Where would musical theater be without the Pirates of Penzance?
Three Saints Gilbert date from the early Middle Ages. The wealthy and well-born Gilbert of Sepringhman used his fortune to found monasteries and convents. Gilbert of Dornoch served as bishop in Scotland and Gilbert of Meaux served as bishop in France.
The popular pet form of Gilbert for at least some of these centuries was not Gil, but Gib. Gib, for reasons we can’t quite pin down, also referred to a male cat. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Falstaff complains, “Sblood, I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugged bear.” It’s an obscure reference, but one that your son might stumble across in English 101.
Feline references aside, Gilbert has fairly common in the US, ranking in the Top 200 from 1880 through 1968. He was at his most popular, #91, in 1929 and 1930. He’s fallen consistently since the 1960s, and today stands at a mere #679. In fact, the Spanish and Italian Gilberto outranks the English version, coming in at #594.
If you’re a TV Land fan, you might even recall that Gilbert Bates was one of Beaver Cleaver’s buddies on Leave it to Beaver. But today, the best known Gilbert is probably hoop star Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards.
Despite Gil’s tumble down the charts, we can imagine him sharing the playground with Charlie and Henry, Dexter, Emmett and Julius. The name has that appealing stands-out-but-not-far-out quality many parents seek. And we find Gil a truly appealing nickname for a boy that works on a grown-up, too.