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When the name Acacia was featured for Wattle Day, I mentioned that Monty Python made gentle fun of our national flower with their Bruces Sketch, where all the philosophy faculty at the (fictional) University of Woolloomooloo are named Bruce. This seems to be the origin of the notion that Bruce is a particularly Australian name.
Barry Humphries has said that the inspiration for the Bruces Sketch was his Barry Mackenzie character, who began life as a comic strip in Private Eye. Barry Humphries’ television series, The Barry Humphries Scandals, was a precursor to Monty Python, and Eric Idle has cited Humphries as one of his comedy influences.
It’s rumoured, not implausibly, that Humphries himself suggested the name Bruce as an Australian signifier, either directly or indirectly. The name Bruce peaked in Australia in the 1930s, and in Britain slightly later, in the 1940s. Even at its height in the UK, it was only around the bottom of the Top 100, so it wasn’t nearly as common there.
Humphries was born in 1934, so had peers called Bruce. The most obvious example is Australian director Bruce Beresford (born 1940), who directed the Barry Mackenzie films. Like Barry Humphries, Bruce went to England in search of career opportunities, but was unable to break into the British film industry, and found success at home, with movies like Breaker Morant and Puberty Blues, and in North America with Driving Miss Daisy, and Black Robe.
The connection between Barry and Bruce continued when Humphries took the role of a great white shark named Bruce in the animated film, Finding Nemo. The American film-makers named Bruce, primarily not as an Australian reference, but after the shark in Jaws, whose models were all called Bruce after Steven Spielberg’s lawyer. Bruce the Shark does have an Australian accent though, and uses ockerisms like “Good on ya, mate!”.
From the United States, the name Bruce gained a different stereotype, being associated with homosexuality. The reasons are unclear, but one of the most popular theories is that it’s connected to the campy Batman television shows of the 1960s, as Batman’s real name is Bruce Wayne. Another is that it is from the 1960s parody song Big Bruce, where Bruce is a camp hairdresser.
Apart from these reasons, it does seem that the “tough guy” names of one generation are often seen as effeminate, dorky, or otherwise laughable by the next. Something to think about should you be considering one of today’s rugged baby names, such as Axel, Blade, Diesel, or Rowdy.
Bruce is a Scottish surname of Norman-French origin. The Clan Bruce are from Kincardine on the Firth of Forth in Scotland, and trace their origins from the French de Brus or de Bruis, coming from Breux in Normandy (now Brix), sometimes said to mean “the willow lands”. This history and etymology is now considered doubtful, due to lack of evidence.
The first of the family on record to come to Britain was Robert de Brus, who accompanied King Henry I there after the Battle of Tinchbray in 1106. He was granted large tracts of land in Yorkshire, and named 1st Lord of Annandale by King David I of Scotland in 1124. A family legend says that the first of their line was Robert de Brus, who came over with William the Conqueror but this is more wishful thinking than fact.
Of course the most famous member of Clan Bruce was Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots from 1306 to 1329, claiming royal blood as great-great-great-great grandson of David I. One of the most famous warriors of his generation, he led Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England. He fought successfully during his reign to regain Scotland’s place as an independent nation, with a great victory at the Battle of Bannockburn. Today he is remembered in Scotland as a national hero.
According to a popular legend, while on the run from the English, Robert the Bruce took shelter in a cave. Here he whiled away the lonely hours watching a spider trying to connect one area of the cave’s roof to another using its web. Each time the spider would fail, but kept trying until at last it succeeded Inspired by the plucky little arachnid, Robert the Bruce returned to defeat the English, winning more supporters, and eventual victory. If you ever read this story as a child, it probably ended by saying the moral was :”If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again”.
This story was first told by Sir Walter Scott in in his Tales of a Grandfather: Being Stories of the History of Scotland (1828), and it is believed to have been adapted from a story about Sir James Douglas, Robert the Bruce’s ally and lieutenant. However, the story is very old, being similar to Jewish tales about King David, and Persian stories about Tamerlane and an ant. Apparently people love the idea of beleaguered rulers being inspired by small creatures with exoskeletons.
Robert the Bruce was the high point of the Clan Bruce, although Robert’s son David also became King of Scotland. Various Bruces did historically worthy things, and one of the most famous is Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. He spent most of his fortune taking sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, which was falling into ruins: today they are known as the Elgin Marbles, and on display in the British Museum.
Bruce has been used as a first name since the 17th century, and was used in both England and Scotland. Although it has plenty of history, Bruce didn’t become a huge success as a boy’s name until the 20th century, which gives it a rather modern feel.
In Australia, Bruce is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #85 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1930s at #22. It didn’t leave the Top 100 until the 1970s – perhaps Monty Python wasn’t a help to it, or perhaps after many decades its time of popularity was up. Although uncommon, Bruce has remained stable for years around the 400-500s.
So how Australian is the name Bruce really? Well, apart from the Monty Python sketch (which is, you know, fiction), it peaked earlier here than elsewhere, and peaked much higher than in Britain. However, it peaked only a little higher than in the US, where it is also a classic, and peaked at #25 during the 1950s. Its current popularity in Australia is little different to that in the UK and US, so possibly not quite as Australian as you might have thought!
(Photo shows Bruce from Finding Nemo)