Sunday, November 22, 2009

Biblical Names That Are Ready for a Comeback

Part of the fun of wandering around in old graveyards is enjoying the 17th- and 18th-century names. I have several favorites that are, alas, out of the question for my hypothetical future children (Hepzibah, Dorcas, Temperance, Thankful). Perhaps we will use them on cats.

Colonial New Englanders used pretty much every name in the Bible — even the naughty ones (Jezebel, Antipas, Herod). Some of these names are definitively out (Mephibosheth, Onesiphorus, Mehuman), but others seemed poised to make a comeback.

Laura Wattenberg at The Baby Name Wizard, the master of historical name data and trends, has identified some characteristics of names of that are on the verge of a breakout: they might sound like names that are already popular (Addison is the new Madison), they might be the same style as popular names (Harper is a surname-as-first-name), they might have trendy sounds (long a is in, initial hard consonants are generally out), etc.

With these rules in mind, I have identified some Biblical names that seem ready for renewed popularity. All statistics and rankings come from the Social Security baby name website and the NameVoyager. A comprehensive list of Biblical names can be found at

  • Susanna (Luke 8:3): This was a very popular name in colonial New England and I can't explain why it isn't more popular today. The similar-sounding Hannah has spent over a decade in the top 10 (1995-2007) and Anna (#26 in 2008) is also riding the soft vowel wave. The Biblical Susanna is a minor personage, but this is name is right on trend. My parents, especially my Dad, loved "Susanna" and it probably would have been my name if they hadn't decided that "Susanna DeAngelis" would be a bad idea.
  • Ada (Genesis 4:19): Six years ago, Ada wasn't in the top 1,000 names. Last year, it rode the coattails of similar names (Ava, Ayla, Adeline) to #598. It's a bit unfair to include Ada on a list of names that should make a comeback — its comeback is already underway. In some translations of the Bible, this name is spelled "Adah," but I think that any modern version would be spelled "Ada" and be pronounced AY-duh. It's Biblical, it's Victorian, it's got an initial long a — it's perfect.
  • Keziah (Job 42:14): Here's a name that you might be surprised to see in an old graveyard: Keziah. It just sounds so modern to me, even sort of made up. But no, it's a legit Biblical name. It even has a cute nickname — Kizzy — which would fit in with all the little Isabel/Izzy and Mackenzie/Kenzie kindergarteners out there. Keep the trendy Z sound, lose the popular name, resurrect an old favorite. I should note that Keziah was fairly popular among white New Englanders, but it also has a long history as an African-American name.
  • Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11): Ok, the Sapphira of the Bible is not a great role model. Still, this Victorian-sounding version of Sapphire is on trend with other jewel and color names — see the recent success of Ruby (#113), Violet (#184), etc. and hyper-feminine frills like Isabella (#2), Annabelle (#188), Arianna (#66), etc. The only major stumbling block for this name is the lack of an obvious nickname.
  • Jael (Judges 4:17-22): If you like the Bible but are disappointed that most of the women in it are only described as the wives or mothers of male characters, let me suggest Jael. No shrinking violet she. All of the Jaels and Yaels I've ever known have pronounced this name with two syllables, but there is potential for an unfortunate pronunciation (JAIL). Still, with the popularity of Jayden, Jayla, Jaylen, Jade, Jada, and all variations of those names, there seems to be room for Jael.
  • Mara (Ruth 1:20): Mara is only kinda sorta a Biblical name — it means bitterness and is the name Naomi gives herself when she is grieving for her husband and sons. Though Mara is currently on a downward trajectory (it was in the #600-range in the 1990s and #812 in 2008), I can see it appealing to the same parents who like Clara (#206), Sarah (#20), Kara (#260), etc. or who want to jazz up Mary (#97) just a bit. I would be unsurprised to encounter a Mara on the playground in my upper-middle-class, academic/hipster neighborhood.
  • Asherah: This is probably not a good name for a Christian or Jew, but if you are a fellow atheist or pagan who enjoyed The Red Tent, go for it. Asherah is the Queen of Heaven, the consort of El, the living grove in the desert. We already like the sound — Asher is racing up the boys' charts (not in the top 1,000 before 2000, #206 in 2008). Why not Ashera? I'm more of a Susanna/Amelia/Una person myself, but I can see the appeal of such a powerful, ancient, yet modern-sounding name.
  • Mahlah (Numbers 27:1-11): In the Bible, Mahlah is a sister of Noa. Noa hasn't really caught on as a girl's name in the US, but it is the #1 name for little girls in Israel. With the current popularity of Malia (#345), Maya (#72), and Molly (#104), there may be a place for Mahlah (perhaps spelled Mahla). Potential stumbling block: this is probably not a great name for families that speak Spanish or another romance language, in which mal, malo, or mala means bad, evil, or wicked. I remember being startled the first time I met someone named Malo, as I was ignorant of the Breton saint of that name.
  • Apphia (Philemon 1:2): Apphia was an early Christian and her name meas something along the lines of "fruitful/bountiful" in Greek. If you like Sophia (#7), but believe that nothing is any good if other people like it, you might try Apphia instead!
  • Elisheba (Exodus 6:23): Elizabeth (#9), but with some zazz. A friend of mine has a sister named Erzsebet/Erzsi, and I like her name a lot. Sadly, I have not an ounce of Hungarian blood. There are a million forms of Elizabeth out there and it will always be one of the most popular names in America. Since everything old is new again, I think there's potential for this very ancient form of the name.

  • Samson (Judges 13-16): Sam is such a popular name right now, but I suspect that people are looking for an alternative to Samuel (#28). The -son ending is also on trend. I love Samson's story — he's the Hercules of the Bible, a demi-god, a folk hero, a complicated character who is involved in a lot of drama. Ever since that song came out, Delilah has been shooting upward in popularity (not in the top 1,000 before 2000, #193 in 2008). Will Samson follow?
  • Joah (2 Chr. 34:8): Can't decide between Noah (#15) and Jonah (#137)? Your problem is solved.
  • Mattan (Matthew 1:15): My neighborhood is full of Matteos (#554, but overrepresented in the Boston suburbs) and Matthiases (#772, ditto) — Mattan would fit right in. The name sounds a little made up, but in the Bible, Mattan is Jesus' great-grandfather. Or, I guess, if you believe in the Bible, he is Joseph's grandfather and Jesus' step-great-grandfather. Either way, it's a bona fide Bible name.
  • Abijah (there are a bunch of them): Elijah has been hot for a while now and it keeps climbing every year (#22 in 2008). As it reaches the peak of its popularity, it will start to feel a little tired, a little done, and people will look around for a close-but-not-quite name (think Kristen of the 1980s followed by Kirsten of the 1990s). For parents who like Elijah but think it's too common, Abijah is a good alternative. Of course, none of the Abijahs of the Bible have the stature of Elijah, so those concerned with meaning might want to stick with Elijah. In the Bible, Abijah/Abiah is both a male and a female name.
  • Javan (Genesis 10:2): Of all the sons of Japheth, Javan is the most likely to have 21st-century namesakes (Gomer and Magog have no chance). A variant of this name (Javon) has been on the charts since the Jason craze of the late 1970s, and now the Jaden/Jaylon/Jalyn names are pulling it and other variants (Jayvon, Javion) higher and higher. I don't know how to pronounce Javan in Hebrew, and I'm guessing that it's neither JAY-van nor juh-VON, but either would be an on-trend baby name for 2010.
  • Amos (Book of Amos): Here's a 19th-century favorite that's due for another go-round once wealthy Northeasterners get tired of Henry (#78), Oliver (#118), and Arlo (not top 1,000, but popular in Cambridge, MA, trust me). It's short, it's familiar, it has the long a sound, and if your family arrived in America before 1840, there's probably an Amos in your family tree somewhere. One drawback is that it might sound a little Amish-y, but I think it still has appeal for people who want a classic name that no one else is using. I should also put in a plug for Asa (#633), a biblical name and the name of one of my favorite Cantabrigians, Asa Gray.
  • Cain (Genesis 4): Ok, yes, there are obvious problems here. Even if you don't believe in the Bible, the name "Cain" is still pretty tainted in the culture at large. But with names like Cade (#310) and Gage (#144) and other manly monosyllables so popular now, Cain would fit right in. He might not get many playdates, though.
  • Esau (Genesis 25): I always sort of felt bad for Esau in the Bible — Jacob and Rebekah struck me as conniving and sinister, but Esau tried to do the right thing. Now, Jacob is winning again — his name has been #1 in the US for the whole century so far. What about Esau??? It's got the popular initial long e of Ethan and Eli and Elijah, it's from one of the best known sections of the Old Testament, and yet, it has not been in the top 1,000 names since 1902 (and never in the top 900). Why? It's no stranger than Ezra (#292). If Nehemiah (#364) and Hezekiah (#929) can get a place on the charts, shouldn't there be room for Esau?
  • Rufus (Mark 15:21): I don't particularly like this name, but people seem to like Ruby, so the sound isn't completely out of style (though Reuben is not doing too well). More than the oo sound, Rufus seems promising because it sounds very masculine. If you already have boys named Talon (#465) and Gunnar (#540) or something similarly Palinesque, Rufus seems like a good stylistic match. Yet, I can also see it as a brother for August (#482) and Sebastian (#74) among the Victorian-inclined.
  • Zaccai (Ezra 2:9): Zack sounds like Jack, which is good, but Zachary (#47) is sounding a little tired. Some people have opted for Zack (#884) on its own, while others have gone for Zachariah (#441). Zaccai is a way to spice up a popular name that's getting a little frayed around the edges.
What say you? Do any of these names have a chance?


    Robert J. said...

    > Gomer and Magog have no chance

    A shame, isn't it? Gog and Magog would be great for a pair of cats, though.

    Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

    I'll always think of them as dogs after the china dogs that guard Anne Shirley's fireplace in the LMMontgomery books.

    Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

    I just ran across a few generations of Vashti's in my coloial Massachusetts family tree. I was startled because it almost sounds like a Hindu goddess, but I found it in the bible. To me it sounded like a name straight out of "Dharma and Greg"

    Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

    That is surprising! Are you perhaps related to Vashti Hubbard of Rutland, MA or Vashti Snell of Brockton?

    I have never seen a gravestone for a Vashti, but as soon as I searched for the name in the vital records, it's all over the place!

    Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

    Also, Vashti is something of a problematic name for a Protestant New Englander — Vashti was modest, but she also disobeyed her husband. Perhaps it was ok to disobey him because he was Persian, not an Israelite.

    Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

    Oops, that should be Vashti Snell Cary.

    Anonymous said...

    "surname-as-first-name" never seems to go out of style. Here in Virginia, it was extremely popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

    In fact, I think it's stayed popular throughout the South, although somewhat shifted to the middle. My uncle's middle name (which he goes by) is his mother's maiden name. Both my sister and I have family names as middle names. Luckily not Mehitabel.

    Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

    You're right. My name — Caitlin Galante-DeAngelis Hopkins — is practically a genealogy project and I have a brother named Wheeler, which is my maternal great-grandmother's maiden name.

    I meant that a lot of the fast-rising trendy names (especially for girls) are pseudo-surnames or surnames borrowed from other people's family trees. Harper was not a top-1,000 name for girls in 2003, now it's #297; Emerson debuted on the charts in 2002, now it's #290. A few British-sounding surnames gained popularity as girls' names in the 1980s (Taylor, Madison), but many have broken into the top 1,000 in the past 15 years or so — Sloane, Kenley, McKenna, Campbell, Kennedy, Quinn, Parker, Emery, Hadley, Reagan, Marley, Riley, Delaney, Hayden etc. It's a very popular style, so other surnames that sound English or Irish or Scottish have potential for riding the trend to newfound popularity as first names, regardless of family connections. Laura Wattenberg has a good post on the surname-as-trendy-name phenomenon here.

    Anonymous said...

    I once met a man named Gordon whose nickname was Gog. Which also made me think of Anne Shirley's china dogs.