Baby Name Image: Seeking a glamorous Gertrude

By Mikita Brottman

“If you will call a dog Hervey,” said the English author Dr. Johnson, “I shall love him.” This quirky adage was meant to praise the unconventional Hervey family, whom Dr. Johnson found excellent company, but he also put his finger on an important truth, which is that the magic of a name doesn’t lie in the name itself, but in those who bear it. It’s the owners of the name that give it a glamorous aura, which is then passed on to others, even if they happen to be a dog.

Like all magic spells, names must be spoken to take effect, and the more often we hear them, the stronger the power of their magic. Take, for example, my grandmother’s name: Edna. As a magic spell, Edna is quite dead. We rarely hear it spoken, and for this reason, most people would say the name sounds harsh and ugly. The abrasive “d” and “n” in the middle feel particularly unpleasant.

Like similarly cumbersome names that haven’t been in fashion since the turn of the last century (Bertha, Gertrude, Enid), its awkward resonance makes it sound unwieldy, even masculine. It’s difficult to imagine Edna as an adorable little girl, still less a womanly beauty.

At least, that’s how it seems to us now. But names, when they remain unspoken, are merely a set of letters placed in a certain order on the page. Their relative “prettiness” or “ugliness” has very little to do with their sound, but rather with the power of their aura. After all, to the ear, Edna is really no “uglier” than Anna, Emma, or Amy, and very close to the aristocratic-sounding Edina, or the Inuit Sedna. Plus, the “dn” combination sounds perfectly pretty in names like Sydney and Evadne. And how different, really, is the sound of Edna from that of Erin, Eden, Evan, or Ella? If we heard it spoken every day, its power would return. The name would sound pretty again.

Names that haven’t been used for three or four generations are spells that haven’t been used. They sound frumpy and dusty because we’ve let their magic die. Instead of evoking adorable girls, they summon up girdle-wearing matrons in wigs and false teeth, and who wants to burden their sweet newborn baby with this baggage of age?

Edna, Gertrude, and Enid are the names of authors and poets, but they’re writers from the past, not the present. Other names from the same generation have had their magic renewed by being spoken aloud, and applied to fresh young faces: Alice, Millie, Violet, Dora, Harriet, and Matilda.

But magic doesn’t die. It can return overnight. The sudden rise to popularity of an adorable child, talented young actress or fashionable model can immediately re-awaken the spell. Agnes (the Anglo version, not the sleek French Agnès) was dead as a doornail until stylishly revived by the street-smart British model Agyness Deyn, just as plain Joan was set alight by the beautiful Joan Smalls. Harriet the Spy, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Dora the Explorer have put the freshness back into three other old-lady names.

And as soon as a name recovers its aura in a public way, the magic can be spread around. In this sense, then, there are no “ugly” names, only magic spells that are lying dormant, ready to be revived by being spoken aloud, just as Sleeping Beauty was waiting to be re-awakened by a kiss.

All it takes is one glamorous Gertrude….

Mikita Brottman is a humanities professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, a scholar, psychoanalyst, author and cultural critic. Check out her website.

Shown is silent screen actress Gertrude McCoy, just one of several glamorous Gertrudes of the period.



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8 Responses to “Baby Name Image: Seeking a glamorous Gertrude”

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peacebird10 Says:

February 18th, 2015 at 12:40 am

I’ve been waiting to hear more on Edna, Ethel, and Alma, in particular. If Pearl and Mabel sound fresh, why not Edna? I had this ‘magic’ experience you describe with Edith–despite the rise of ‘grandma’ names, this one was still solidly dusty for me until Downton Abbey. Edith might not be the most popular character, but the show brings some charm, youth, and wearability to the name. Incidentally, there was also an Edna and Ethel, but neither were very lovely ladies, unfortunately.

I see the toughest case for Gertrude. She has very heavy sounds, unlike the whispy syllables popular now. But maybe in 10 years those lithe names will begin to wilt and Gertrude will sound more substantial and stylish. We can hope. 😉

Catastroffy Says:

February 18th, 2015 at 4:48 am

I don’t see Edna as an old lady name. I can easily see it on a child or a beautiful woman.
And I picture Gertrude as a beautiful young lady, too…mainly because of the pretty Gertrude Winkworth in the Jeeves and Wooster TV series.
Ethel, though – I don’t think of an old lady, I think of the spiteful young witch in The Worst Witch.

nat108 Says:

February 18th, 2015 at 5:29 am

I’d say Despicable Me is responsible for the resurgence of Agnes

lawsonhaley Says:

February 18th, 2015 at 9:06 am

I completely agree – Edna, Doris, Gertrude, Ethel, etc, they’re in need of a revival!

epowell Says:

February 18th, 2015 at 9:37 am

I do agree somewhat but I still do not like Agnes, Harriet, Joan, Mabel or Dora. Dora the Explorer…just can’t shake her. But I do like a lot of old names…Jane, June, Ingrid (has the a similar sound).

Some names are clunky good but a lot are clunky bad.

Fun list though 🙂

lesliemarion Says:

February 19th, 2015 at 12:46 am

I used to make fun of these names, but now I love them.

There is a certain power in being named Gertrude, Enid, Wilhelmina, Edwina, Harriet.

These are not placating, man-pleasing names. These are strong names with a certain vinegary charm.

And in combination with youth, beauty, vitality, they become irresistible.

gmdx Says:

March 15th, 2015 at 5:42 pm

I definitely think personality can be a better indicator of how well a child carries the name than age. I can imagine some teenaged Ednas, Almas, and Nancys, but I don’t imagine them as cheerleaders. To me, the Agathas are the intelligent, geeky girls who are generally well-liked, but not the Homecoming Queen. Arnolds and Harolds are the nice young men your mother wants you to date, but you’re only really interested wen you need to borrow History notes.
That being said, a Gertrude could have real power in a world of Bellas and Olivias. It’s a strong name, perfect for a girl who wants to be taken seriously. Today’s Ediths are either hipsters or future congresswomen.

anyagreenwich Says:

May 3rd, 2015 at 3:27 pm

I love the name Ethel. The only misgiving I have is that it isn’t flattering when used by French speakers, who say ‘eh-TULL’.

I like Bertha, Jean, Hildegard, Hedwig and… Olga. It’s true. I like the name Olga very much. To me, it’s interchangeable with Olive. There are many cute Olives around these days, if some had been called Olga I wouldn’t bat an eye. Helga, I’m not so sure about, but I could definitely be convinced to like Helga if worn by a sweet “Heidi”-like little girl. In fact, now, if I imagine the character of Heidi, running about the mountain side, gathering her wildflowers, and simply switch her name to Helga… It’s true. I like the name Helga. There IS magic in it!

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