The Secret Confessions of a Girl Called (gulp) Bessie

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!).

Out in the wide world, I was always Mary. I can thank the nuns for this one thing: They invariably stuck to the name on the form, the proper name of your patron saint. On a bad day, if I got in trouble, it would get lengthened to Mary Elizabeth. Not bad, considering the possibilities. School transitioned to work where, again, I was Mary. Plain. Vanilla. Virginal. (Yes, there’s another blog here.) But clean and crisp and professional. I just needed to keep my home and work lives separate. And always, always, there came the cringe-inducing moment in any serious romance where my love learned about “Bessie.” How he handled that knowledge pretty much sealed the fate of the relationship.

Now, however, that I am in my 40s, I am liking Bessie. It has the advantage of being rare. And I am secure enough to feel that I can overcome its negative connotations. Particularly, I like that the only people who know me as Bessie and call me by that name, are people to whom I am deeply attached. Also, I’ve discovered Bessie (or Bess) Coleman, a beautiful African-American, part-Cherokee pioneer aviatrix who was a famous barnstorming pilot in the 1920s. Talk about your style and moxie.

Still, I would not suggest naming a child Bess or Bessie (or Mossie or Flossie or Mable or Bertha or Phyllis or any of their ugly sisters) unless you are a supermodel who is married to George Clooney and you are pretty well assured that your child will be gorgeous. Also, you and George will need to be able to insulate her from teasing by using your wealth to hire a security detail around your home on Lake Como in Italy.

And while you’re at it, buy her an airplane. What the heck.

Mary (Bessie) Barr Mann is a freelance writer and editor living in Maplewood, NJ, with her husband and two children. Her work appears regularly on www.patch.com and www.glocallynewark.com and in the occasional print publication.

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21 Responses to “The Secret Confessions of a Girl Called (gulp) Bessie”

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redridiing Says:

September 25th, 2009 at 4:35 am

Bessie, I love your name! Nicknames for Elizabeth have come and gone in fashion – Liz, Beth, Betty, Betsy, Eliza, Lizzie etc., and I think it is good that you have come to love your name. I foresee Bessie coming back into style in a big way now, just as Betty has, and Eliza, but at least you have the choice of using Elizabeth if you wanted to, OR could use trillions of its nicknames if you so chose. And Mary is perennially beautiful.

My middle name is Joyce, and I have tried and tried, but cannot love it at all.

Interesting post. I would love to know what you have called your own children?

Abby Says:

September 25th, 2009 at 7:34 am

I can’t help but agree with RedRidiing, though as someone who grew up hating her name, I understand your feelings, too.

Bess makes me think of Queen Elizabeth – as in Good Queen Bess. Bessie is a bit cutesy, but Bess? I love Bess.

Thanks for sharing your story and I can’t help but share Redriiding’s curiosity – what did you name your kiddos?

madeleine Says:

September 25th, 2009 at 9:07 am

I think Bess is fantastic, personally. And I would have never imagined Mabel lumped into the ‘ugly sister category’; I think the name is stunning.

http://legitbabenames.wordpress.com/ Says:

September 25th, 2009 at 12:37 pm

I actually think Bess/Bessie is quite sweet. I don’t think of cows, rather, I think of Queen Elizabeth I. That said, maybe it would be a different story if Bess or Bessie was actually my name. I have had a distinctively, soft, feminine sounding name and I have always loved it for those reasons. Maybe having a name that is associated with frumpiness and cows would have had a different impact on me.

Mary “Bessie” Mann Says:

September 25th, 2009 at 12:49 pm

To all:
My children are named Ethan Harald (to give him the same initials as his dad, Erik Henry) and Susanna Elisabeth. Susanna is named after her Oma (grandmother from Germany) who waited 70 years for a little girl.

I was not delighted when I realized how popular the name “Ethan” is, although I love the name meaning (“strong, firm”) and find that it really suits my determined but sweet boy (age 7). Susanna always seemed lush and bountiful and romantic to me and so is my Susanna. My Susanna (age 5) also likes to be called “Susie.” I can’t tell you how many people are delighted to hear “Susie” when I call it out in the playground (or the aisle at Target when I’ve lost her!). It has a very retro quality.

Sorry! Didn’t mean to insult any Mabels! But sometimes a name might seem beautiful until you have to wear it. Walk a mile in Mabel’s shoes. . . .

peach Says:

September 25th, 2009 at 3:49 pm

An interesting story, thank you. Your children have fine names: I love Susanna! My hubby’s Grandma was named Bessie (not Elizabeth) by a 3-yr.old sibling who named her after her favorite milk cow. Bessie never learned to love her first name and goes by her middle name, Evelyn, ALWAYS. I like many of the retro nicknames coming back in style but prefer to have some formal name as an option, as you had.

redridiing Says:

September 25th, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Thank you for sharing that. I like your children’s names. I first remember hearing the name Ethan on one of my favourite-ever American series, THIRTYSOMETHING, in the late 80s. And I love the Scandinavian way of spelling HarAld, it seems more attractive (to me anyway) than HarOld.

Susanna Elisabeth is beautiful. I have used Elisabeth for a middle name for one of my daughters, too. As well as being the European way of spelling the name, Elisabeth is also the Welsh way rather than the English “z” spelling.

I grew up with a girl called Susan Mabel, and she LOATHED Mabel, and we all chuckled about it growing up in the 50s/60s. It is a generational thing. But I can see its charm now – as with Edith and Maud etc.

Ailsa

Mary “Bessie” Mann Says:

September 26th, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Peach,
What a great story! Lessons to learn: Never let a 3-year-old name your child. And: Never let a 3-year-old (or anyone, for that matter) name your child after a milk cow.

Did grandma have another sibling named “Mittens” after the house cat? (Sorry, couldn’t help it!)

Mary “Bessie” Mann Says:

September 26th, 2009 at 10:37 pm

Ailsa,
I love your name! Are you Scottish?

Jill Says:

September 28th, 2009 at 12:19 am

I love the name Bess/Bessie, and am glad that you’re liking it these days. 🙂

I’ve known one Bess in my life, and she was a bright, happy little girl who truly loved her name. (I’m sure she still does, but we’ve fallen out of touch.)

I also associate the name with the feisty Bess Lindstrom, Phyllis Lindstrom’s daughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Thanks for your great blog! 🙂

happydreamsbee Says:

September 28th, 2009 at 7:24 am

I am a Bessie/Bess really an Elizabeth, I have always liked my name. I loved being a Bess my nn came from my younger sister unable to prounce Elizabeth and stuck so i have been Bess ever since. its unique and have only ever came across a few.

Emz does London Says:

September 28th, 2009 at 3:23 pm

I love Bessie/Bess and would use it in a second. I don’t like Elizabeth though so I’d use it on its own (or possibly as a nickname for Beatrice). To be honest, round here it wouldn’t even stand out – I teach in south London and I have a Betsy, a Floss, several Jessies, a Millie and an Agnes in my classes (all aged between 12 – 15). And those girls pull their names off pretty damn well.

Vickie Says:

October 1st, 2009 at 11:35 am

When my aunt came from Greece, people here said she should be called Bessie because I guess Bessie sounds like a perfect nickname for Vasilki (still have no idea why). Then she married a Smith so she became Bessie Smith.

niki72 Says:

October 2nd, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Bessie is actually a cute nn. It is really nice. My own daughter got teased and embarrassed when she was in middle school (her nn is Elsie).

Elizabeth (Bessie) Says:

November 8th, 2009 at 5:06 am

Bessie, I am another Bessie. In fact I am an Elizabeth Mary aka Bessie. I LOVE your article. I have no time to write more at the moment but I echo, reverberate with and utterly love every sentiment you express. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Andria Says:

December 4th, 2009 at 7:01 pm

One of my very best friends is named Bessie. Just Bessie Faith, not short for Elizabeth or anything. And the name Bessie is perfect for her. She is drop dead gorgeous, she makes a trip to the grocery store a hilarious adventure and she is absolutely a hoot!!

I agree with the author that Bessie maybe is not such a good name for those who lack confidence, so raise your daughter to be comfortable with who she is and name that sweet baby Bessie!!!

Rebecca Says:

March 18th, 2010 at 1:48 pm

My almost 14 year-old daughter is named Bess Kathleen. She is named after my grandmother who was either Anne Elizabeth or Bessie depending on which relative you talk to. She was gone before I was born but I’ve always thought the name ‘Bess’ sounded so graceful and elegant. Being a child of the 50s/60s, I too remember Bess Myerson, the child character ‘Bess’ on the Mary Tyler Moore show and, of course, Bess Truman. Add to this my fond remembrance of seeing an old movie about Queen Elizabeth I entitled ‘Young Bess’ when I was an impressionable, romantic, teen and you’ve got the makings of a strong case for liking the name ‘Bess’. Oh, and my daughter Bess? She HATES her name. I tell her she’ll grow to appreciate it when she’s older. And what do her classmates call her? Youda, as in ‘you da best’. Kids!

Bess Says:

July 28th, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I cannot disagree more with this blog entry. My name is Bess (short for Elizabeth). I really love my name and never have had any problems with teasing or nicknames. In fact, people tell me all the time it’s cute or pretty and fits my personality well. I never feel out of place at all. I have several of friends named Jess and Tess. Bess seems like a much more unique variation. In high school I had an English class with 22 male and female students. 7 of them were named Elizabeth, being Bess was perfect!

As a little kid I embraced the whole cow thing and got excited when I read a book and the cow or horse’s name was Bess. I loved that Amy’s daughter was named Bess in Little Women. Nobody really calls me Bessie anymore, but when they do I don’t really mind, it’s always out of affection.

Honestly, for me, Bess is a fantastic name. It is a simple, strong and reminds me of the turn of the century. I have never met another Bess, but nobody mispronounces it or is confused. My parents deliberately named me Elizabeth so I could choose to not use Bess if it didn’t suit me well or I outgrew it. Other than about a 3 week period in junior high when I wanted to be called Libby or Eliza, I’ve always been extremely fond of my name. I still go by Bess and always will. The old fashioned-ness is trendy and unique, but at the same time, very classic. I have a very common last and middle name, so using “Bess” is a great way to stand out while still fitting in with my peers.

I think you need to give Bess another look! It’s served me really well!

Natalie Says:

January 6th, 2011 at 10:58 am

I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw this article! I call my older sister, Bethany, “Bessie” on a regular basis, because as a child it was easier for me to say, and that’s what I picked up on from “Bethy”.
I personally would never name my child anything close to Bessie, but I’ve always liked it for my sister.
She hates when I call her Bessie, but I’m her “baby” sister, so it’s my right!
Great article, thanks!

-Natalie

abby Says:

March 30th, 2011 at 7:19 am

Interesting that another Abby above doesn’t like her name, I love my name! And I named my now 2 yr old daughter Bessie! (Bess for short). She was named after my grandmother, it totally suits her and I think is a great name for a little girl but then as another response says above Bess is an elegant name for a teenager into woman.
However I kind of hope the popularity doesn’t come back, I love the fact that no-one else has the same name as her and it’s something I loved as an Abby when I was a kid. Unique and individual unlike the 10 Jenny’s and Sarah’s in my year at school ( no offense I have a best friend of each!)

Olivia Says:

July 31st, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Great story! However, I have to agree with Madeleine here – Mabel is gorgeous! As is Flossie, but I would never ever lump that on a child with nothing else to fall back on! Florence, maybe?

Oh, and I adore Susanna! It’s lovely!

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