Q: As a Robert, I’m curious about the “bert” in names like mine—say, Albert, Herbert, Hubert, Gilbert, Norbert, and, for that matter, Bertram.
A: The common theme in names like these, an element inherited from old Germanic languages, is “bright” or “shining.”
Going back even further, to the days before written language, the “bert” element in such names has been traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bherəg.
As an adjective bherəg meant “bright” or “white” and as a verb it meant “shine,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.
Ultimately, the “bert” in these names has the same source as the English words “bright” (beorht in Old English) and “birch” (birce in Old English, so named because it was a white tree).
The Old English beorht, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has cousins not only in Old High German (beraht) but also in Old Saxon and Middle High German (berht), Old Icelandic (bjartr), Old Swedish (barter), Old Danish (bert, bier), and Gothic (bairhts).
All are from “the same Indo-European base as Welsh berth (‘fair, beautiful, bright’),” the OED says.
The Old English beorht and Old High German beraht were used in personal masculine and feminine names, according to American Heritage, where they were often reduced to berht or bert.
Here are some these names and their meanings:
Robert, from Hrodebert (“bright fame”); Albert, from Adalbert (“bright noble”); Bertha, from Beratha (“the bright one”); Gilbert, from Giselberht (“bright hostage” or “bright pledge”); and Herbert, from Heriberht (“bright army”).
Also Cuthbert, which was formed in Old English as Cuthbeorht (“brightly known”); Hubert (“bright mind”); Norbert (“bright north”); Bertram and Bertrand (“bright shield”); and Bertold (“bright ruler”).
Finally, here’s a little more about your own name, Robert.
Although it’s “ultimately of Germanic origin,” the OED says, it “was common in medieval France and subsequently in Britain.” The name wasn’t unknown in England before the Norman Conquest, but it became more popular afterward.
In 10th-century Britain, Oxford says, the name appeared occasionally in Latin and English documents, but it was used more frequently from the 11th century onward and was “at first apparently borne by people of continental, especially Norman, descent.”
In Old English, according to the dictionary, spellings included Rodbert, Rodbeard, Hrodberd, Rotbeard, Rotbert, Robert, and Roberd. Among the spellings in Middle English were Robart, Robert, Robertt, Roberte, Roberd, and Robard.
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