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baby name Bessie

Guest blogger Mary Elizabeth Barr Mann’s family has always called her Bessie, a name she deems fit only for torch singers, great beauties….or cows.

My birth certificate reads “Mary Elizabeth” . Perhaps more importantly in my family, my baptismal certificate reads “Mary Elizabeth”. But, to my father and my brother, I am “Bessie.”

My mother’s name is Mary, and so my father has never called me such. Dr. Freud would approve. And while my extended family makes the distinction by calling me “Mary Beth,” somehow my dad came up with Bessie and thought it was adorable. When my parents discovered that Bessie was easy for my toddler brother to pronounce, it stuck. At least on the nuclear level.

As you might imagine, in my adolescence, I did not like being Bessie. It was not, nor is it yet again, popular. While the U.S. Census pegged Bessie as the 13th most popular girls’ name in 1880, it plummeted out of the top 100 by 1930 and nosedived from the top 1000 by 1970.

Worse yet for my teenage years, Bessie is neither sleek, nor sexy. It is not stylish. Not a single model in Seventeen magazine ever had that name. And, though somewhere in a corner of Park Slope there may be an urban hipster mother plotting to bring back the name is a burst of ugly-chic, to this day Bessie remains shunned.

The nickname didn’t bother me as a very young child. Heck, I was surrounded by relatives with equally unattractive, ragged-old-laundry-hanging-in-the-back-alley names—like Reenie (for Irene) and Mossie (for Martha). But by my teenage years, I really, really wanted my dad and my brother—and by now my younger sisters who had gotten in on the act—to quit it. The worst was when my brother’s friends would tease me about the name: “Bessie the cow.” “Old Bess, my gun.” (And this from a kid with a big schnoz whose surname was Finnochio. Sheesh.)

Sure, there was Bessie Smith. And Bess Myerson—the first Jewish Miss America. But that was IT. Unless you were belting out the blues with a voice full of sorrow and steel, or you were transcendentally beautiful, this was not a good name. With my reedy soprano, eyeglasses and frizzy hair, I was none of these things (although I have since graduated to contact lenses!).

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A Baby Named ….Seabiscuit?


Our guest blogger Marion Roach first wrote about her sister Margaret’s horse-inspired name on her blog She Said, She Said, part of the sisters’ joint site, The Sister Project.  Margaret Roach, the former editor of “Martha Stewart Living”, also runs the site A Way To Garden.

My family frequently names those we love for sports idols. For instance, among the dozen cats and dogs who have come and gone in my life there was Saratoga Roach, a terrier of a beagle, named for the late-summer racetrack in upstate New York, and Cleveland, a hapless chocolate lab, named for the Browns.

Then there is my sister, Margaret, named for the 1954 winner of the Belmont Stakes.

At one point in his life our father was a turf reporter, spending his winters at Hialeah, his summers in Saratoga and the time between at the racetracks in the East. Amid the crowd he covered, one of the great pastimes was naming thoroughbreds. It’s an art—no name can be more than 18 characters, including punctuation and spaces—as well as a science: Names frequently reflect breeding, sometimes with great flourish. For instance, the year before my sister was born, the great horse of 1953 was a colt whose father was Polynesian and mother was named Geisha. Their champion offspring was crowned Native Dancer. It’s a great tradition.

And one that continued into my family. My father had a horse named for him—it was called Sportseditor. I have a sailboat named Ruffian, for the magnificent dark filly who didn’t know the meaning of the word quit, until she broke down at the mile marker in a match race against Foolish Pleasure in 1975.

But all this really started in January 1954, when my father and mother, on their way to Hialeah, stopped off to see Max Hirsch, the great horse trainer, at his winter quarters in South Carolina.

In due course it was revealed that there was an offspring on the way in our household.

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A Nameberry visitor commented recently that she loved ultra-feminine proper names with tomboyish nicknames.That’s a sentiment we echo.

If you’re torn between girls’ names with a conventionally female image and ones that sound more androgynous, these choices have it all.They give you (and your daughter) the choice between going totally girly and sidestepping conventional gender identity, at least when it comes to your name.

Some very feminine names with tomboyish nicknames are:

Alexandra – Alex



Araminta or ArabellaAri

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Pre-Natal Nicknames: Peanut and Pie


Sometimes pre-natal nickname stories have a happy ending. For instance, when my British mother-in-law was pregnant with my husband, she was planning to follow the family tradition of using the initials C and R for the names of the boys in the family. Dad was Roy Colin, and they settled on Roger Clive for their first son. The only thing was that all through the pregnancy, her in-laws insisting on referring to the fetus as Christopher Robin, as in “How’s little Christopher Robin doing?” In the end, they heard this so often that when the time came, he couldn’t be anything but Christopher Robin–and their second son became Roger Clive.

Granted, that isn’t really a nickname example–this is more about the sometimes silly pet names we give our babies-to-be which shouldn’t be allowed into the delivery room. Think of little Peanut Rademacher, son of General Hospital star Ingo. Now picture him calling up a girl for a date and saying “Hi, my name is Peanut Rademacher.” It seems that, according to the dad, “We were calling him that when he was in mommy” and they couldn’t let it go.

Of course the individual names people use in pregnancy are infinite, but here are a few not-to-go-on-the-birth-certificate examples I’ve run across. (And bear in mind the title of one of our favorite blogs–”You can’t call it ‘it’!”


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Baby Name Trends

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day and when she mentioned her young daughter Becca, I suddenly thought, “Hey, whatever happened to  Becky?”  You rarely hear of a Rebecca under the age of 13 these days who is called by that traditional diminutive.

This is something that happens with pet forms in general–they go through phases and changes as much as–or indeed more than–the mother name.  For example when you hear the name Elizabeth, you have no idea of her age–she could be 99 or 9 months old–but you can certainly guess that Betty is a Grandma and that Liz and Beth are probably young adults.

Some other examples: Patricia‘s nicknames went from Patsy to Patty to Pat to Tricia to Trish to practically non-existent.  The no longer popular Mary spawned any number of offshoots before it faded, including Mamie, Molly and PollyKatherine moved from Kate and Katie to Kit and Kitty to Kay and Kathy, back to Kate and Katie,  to the current Kat; and Edward launched not only Eddie and Ward but Ed, Ted and Ned.

But the prizes for the two names with the most mutable  pet forms and offshoots have to go to Margaret and Elizabeth, many of whose diminutives have become stand-alone names.  Here, in the roughest chronological order, is what Margarets and Elizabeths been known as over time:






(But note that many, if not most baby Elizabeths these days are called Elizabeth.)

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