My great-great-grandfather was Frederick Elmer Douglass. My great-grandfather was Elmer Clinton Douglass. My grandfather was Claire Elmer Douglass. And had it not been for that wascally Elmer J. Fudd, I most likely would have been Elmer Clinton Douglass, after my recently deceased great-grandfather.
My grandfather, the epitome of working-class masculinity who routinely expressed displeasure with both the gender ambiguity of his first name and the association of his middle name with a buffoonish cartoon character, was determined to be the last Elmer in our family. In fact, immediately following the birth of my father, he marched into the delivery room and presented my grandmother with two name options — neither of which were Elmer (or any variation therein).
“Jim or John?” he asked her.
“Jim,” my grandmother declared after only a moment of consideration.
This scene repeated itself when my Uncle Richard was born.
“Dick or Bob?” my grandfather queried.
“Dick,” my grandmother replied.
None of my grandfather’s four siblings bestowed the name Elmer on their children either, with the last Elmer Douglass appearing on a birth certificate in 1937. By the time I appeared in 1979, my parents were permitted to provide me with the Clinton out of my great-grandfather’s name, but the Elmer portion was never up for debate. The most enduring of my family’s hand-me-down names was DOA, and the cause of death was a rabbit hunter who was perpetually outwitted by his prey.
The Rise and Fall of Elmer
Elmer originally achieved great popularity as a first name in the aftermath of the American Revolution, when two brothers with the surname Elmer — most notably physician John Elmer, a friend of George Washington — distinguished themselves through their service to the Continental Army. Depending upon the source, Elmer often placed somewhere within the 40 most popular names in the nation for newborn boys between 1880 and 1937. That was the year that Elmer Fudd made his debut in both newspaper comic strips and movie theaters.
The results were immediate: Elmer tumbled to number 130 on the most popular names list for boys, behind Lester, Milton and Roland, and barely ahead of Claude. However, the name still benefited from generations of prior use, with honorific namings being conferred upon hapless newborns by parents who hadn’t experienced grade school taunts linked to sharing a name with a cartoon moron.
The Baby Boom then is where we can truly see the effects of Elmer Fudd upon the demand of Elmer as a name. By 1946, when the first wave of babies being produced by returning GIs were hitting hospital nurseries, Elmer fell roughly another 50 positions, now ranking behind Lynn, Wesley, Juan and Wallace.
Just a decade later, Elmer was in total freefall. According to at least one set of data, Elmer ranked number 256 among boys’ names, now trailing Tracy, Marion, Rocky, Mickey and Rudolph — two names for girls, a cartoon squirrel, a cartoon mouse and a reindeer.
Elmers Are Officially Declared Losers
If Elmer needed additional dirt dropped onto its casket, a 1973 report in the Atlanta Constitution titled “Childs Name May Affect Performance in School” certainly provided more than enough topsoil. “Children with popular names like David and Michael make better grades in school than those with ‘loser names’ like Elmer and Maude, according to a Georgia State University psychologist,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeff Nesmith in his opening paragraph.
While other names like Hubert and Oswald were similarly disparaged, the article mentions Elmer with greater frequency than any other name — seven separate times in all. “Teachers know from past experience that a Hubert or an Elmer is generally a loser,” explained Dr. Herbert Harrari, who had performed research on the way teachers responded to children’s names in the classrooms of Florida and California. Harrari reinforced his point by adding, “The work shows that if you expect Elmer to be a loser, you may treat him as a loser, and in reality, he becomes a loser.”
Speaking of losers, the only other Elmer I ever encountered in any entertainment setting was professional wrestler “Plowboy” Frazier, who was recast as the oafish Uncle Elmer in the WWF of the 1980s, the clear subordinate to Hillbilly Jim. This was a matter of the naming hierarchy playing itself out in real time — even when establishing a pecking order amongst comic-relief characters, a hillbilly named Jim was always going to outrank a hillbilly named Elmer.
Today, Elmer has completely bottomed out, ranking 2,836th amongst all names given to children in 2020. Until an Elmer somehow slips through the cracks and achieves a level of fame and celebrity so implausible that the stain of Elmer Fudd can somehow be undone, it will continue to firmly reside on the list of impermissible names.
And if you happen to be one of the very few unlucky Elmers currently in the world? Well, you have no choice but to be vewy, vewy quiet about it.