Unexpectedly Familiar Names: Humphrey

Some names are rarely used yet known by almost everyone. Chances are you have heard these names many times. They are often names of cultural icons, often appearing in literature or film, as authors, actors and characters. And these strong associations may overtake these names, leaving them unusable in the minds of some parents-to-be. Yet often these associations can be overcome. For the trendsetting parent who can look past the associations, these names might just have the perfect blend of unexpected, yet familiar.

Unexpectedly Familiar Name: Humphrey

“You’re not a star until they can spell your name in Karachi.” – Humphrey Bogart

In most parts of the world, Humphrey Bogart is undeniably a household name. Perhaps to the extent that the public considers his name off-limits, belonging to that élite class of famous names which include Cher, Madonna, Oprah, and Kermit. Names that might as well have copyright protection. In this age of “anything goes names”, however, this surname-name might have a shot at breaking away from its famous bearer.

Humphrey’s history runs deeper than the Hollywood actor. This name has much in common with Raymond, from our great-grandparent name series. Both names are English in usage, but were derived from German. Humphrey is composed of the elements hun for “warrier, bear cub” and frid for “peace”. Both names were also brought to England by the Normans. Perhaps Raymond and Humphrey would make good brother names.

Long before Bogie was born, the name had royal roots, initially made famous in England by Humphrey the Duke of Gloucester (1390 – 1447). The name is still used somewhat more often in England, but has become obscure in both countries. In 2011 there were 13 baby boys named Humphrey in the U.K. and only 6 in the U.S.

Around the time of the actor’s birth, Humphrey could have faded into complete obscurity if not for its famous bearer. The name wavered in and out of the bottom top 1000 from 1880 (the earliest year data is available) to 1894, shortly before the actor’s birth in 1899.

Unlike his wife, Lauren Bacall, who adopted her stage name at her agent’s suggestion (she was born Betty Joan Perske), Humphrey was the actor’s given name. Like many early bearers of a surname, the actor was given the maiden name of his mother, Maud Humphrey. His father, a surgeon, also had a distinguished name, Dr. Belmont DeForest Bogart.

The name Bogie inherited from his mother caused him ridicule as a child. Maybe a century ago, Humphrey would have seemed mock-worthy. Now, however, with more boys being named Isaiah (#43 in 2011) than Mark (#159) Humphrey doesn’t seem as strange as it would have seemed a few decades ago. This is not to suggest we have entered a time when every name is ridicule-free. There are still a few names that are best avoided due to teasing-potential. Uranus comes to mind.

But as far as Humphrey is concerned, most little 21st century Humphrey’s shouldn’t fear teasing. When Humphrey is broken down, it is very similar to the stylish Henry, and Jeffrey, which is a contemporary Dad name, but seems youthful enough to fit on a modern child. In fact I met a Jeffrey who was only a year or two older than my daughter, and the name didn’t come across as out-of-place on a 4-year-old, especially since this child was never Jeff, only Jeffrey.

Another thing going for Humphrey is that it is an underused surname-name, a kind of name that is sought by many contemporary expectant-parents. The only downside is the strong association with the actor may be hard to shake. But maybe even this is not such a bad thing.

Even if the name is forever associated with Bogie, for those intrigued by old Hollywood names, the actor is not the worst namesake. The strong popularity of Ava suggests old-Hollywood names have a certain modern appeal.

Readers: What do you think of Humphrey?

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  1. […] ago, a couple of names inspired the “Unexpectedly Familiar Names” series. The first name was Humphrey from the late Humphrey Bogart. The second name was […]

  2. […] trend has only caught on with girls, otherwise we would be seeing a lot more of Cary, Clark, Humphrey, and Gregory on boys under 5. The most popular of these names, Gregory, ranked at #279 in 2011, […]

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