When Matthew McConaughey chose the name Levi for his son, he was, in a subtle way, naming the baby after himself. How so? Because in the New Testament, Matthew and Levi are two names for the same person.
There are many other such pairs of names with close connections that aren’t immediately evident, whether they be different ethnic versions of the same name, double identities for the same person, having historic or literary ties, or as sharers of linguistic elements. Being aware of this can be a useful tool for baby namers seeking not-too-obviously linked twin or sibling names or, like McConaughey, another less egoey version of your or your spouse’s name.
And of course it could also come in handy when looking for a more modern substitute namesake for a fustily-named family member. As much as you may have adored your Grandpa Roland, for example, you still might prefer the more dashing Orlando for your baby boy.
Here are a few examples, though of course there are countless other ethnic-switching possibilities out there:
When we finally finished researching and writing our encyclopedic name book, the day came when we had to decide what to call it. (The working title of Big Baby Name Book just wasn’t going to cut it.)
This turned out to be almost as laborious a task as writing the book. Dozens and dozens of lists of possibilities were emailed back and forth. Our book editor and even our agent entered the fray, offering their own suggestions. (We actually chronicled this painful process in an article we wrote for Publishers Weekly magazine, called Naming the Name Book.) We finally settled on The Baby Name Bible because, well, we hoped people would make it their baby naming bible.
It never entered our minds that some people would take it literally as a book of biblical names. But on our earlier, smaller website, before nameberry was born–babynamebible.com– many visitors did come to search solely for Old and New Testament names. And of course they found them, but a lot more besides.
Biblical names have a long history in this country. They came to colonial America with the early Puritans, who scrutinized the Good Book for names of righteous figures, believing that such names could shape the character of their offspring, and often using extreme examples, like Zelophehad and Zerubbabel. Over the centuries and decades since then, there has been a steady stream of biblical names: individual Old Testament examples, in particular, have drifted in and out of fashion, for both boys and girls.
Looking back at the more recent past. we see that boys’ names have been more consistent: Joseph has been in the Top 25 for the last century, usually accompanied by David and Daniel, and later Joshua, Jonathan, and Adam. Archangel Michael was in first place from the mid-fifties to the late nineties, and now Jacob has been on top since 1999. This past year has seen a record high for Old Testament boys’ names in modern times, with 10 of the Top 25.
Biblical girls’ names have not been as popular as the boys’–possibly because there are fewer of them. Ruth was the sole representative in the first several decades of the 20th century, until Deborah arrived in 1949. After that, the triumvirate of Sarah, Rachel and Rebecca remained in the Top 25 from the seventies until very recently, and the last big success stories were Hannah, which entered the Top 25 in 1993, and Abigail in 1997.
It’s still pretty much a boys’ story when it comes to OT names, with parents now reaching out for some of the less familiar: Nehemiah, Judah, Zachariah. Here are the ones that are currently growing in popularity:
But since there are so few biblical names on the girls’ list, we offer some possibilities to consider to replenish the supply:
It’s always interesting–and fun–to compare the popularity lists of different states because there are inevitably a few unexpected surprises. Some name will pop up at #3 in one state when it’s 30 or 40 across the country. And often a sort of state personality profile will emerge–be it trendy, traditional, or stuck in the past–and regional similarities as well. In the current roster, one thing that’s noteworthy is that most of the names to step out from the crowd are in the boys’ column–with the girls there is a remarkable uniformity of choices across the country.
Regionally, the Northeast presents the most conservative picture, with Michael–long displaced in most other areas–still tops in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. But move north to New England and the picture changes, with names like Logan and Ethan making their way to the top. In the South–and nowhere else–William rules, at the head of the list in seven states, with Anthony in first place in Florida.
The Midwest is split between Jacob and Ethan, but shares one oddity: the name Gavin is in the Top 20 in just about every state–as high as #3 in Wyoming–whereas it’s #32 nationally. So why Gavin in the heartland? I wish I knew. The West is more idiosyncratic, with a large spattering of Hispanic names (3 of the Top 10 in California and Arizona), and a state like Wyoming that presents a laid-back, cowboyish image via top-ranked Ethan, Logan, Wyatt, Brayden, and Hunter.
But what I find especially intriguing are the names that pop in one particular place. Here are some examples of such male and female names, with their national ratings in parenthesis:
GIANNA (90) #10 in Rhode Island
ISAAC (41) #4 in Idaho
NEVAEH (31) #4 in New Mexico
OWEN (56) #6 in Wisconsin
WYATT (69) #7 in Wyoming
When we talk about the strong popularity of biblical names these days, what we’re really talking about are Old Testament names. Looking at the popularity list, we see Jacob at #1, followed by Ethan, Joshua, Daniel, David, Joseph, Noah, Nathan, Samuel and Benjamin, while for girls, Hannah and Sarah are still in the Top 20.
Sure, thousands of babies each year are still named John and Thomas and Elizabeth, but these are seen as very conservative choices, often given to honor a family member. And then there’s poor Mary. We’ve been known to say to parents if you want a really unusual name, how about Mary?–the most widely used female name in the English-speaking world for centuries has long been in steep decline. The statistics are pretty dramatic: in 1925, more than 70,000 baby girls were christened Mary, in 1950 there were still over 65,000, while by last year the number had shrunk to less than 4,000. Similar story with John: 57,000+ in 1950 to just over 4,000 in 2007. Why? For one thing, their massive long-term popularity robbed them of any individuality, and for another, so many of today’s parents carry around elderly images of a Great-Uncle Jim or a Grandma Betty that they don’t seem fitting for a baby.
But there are other New Testament names besides the old standards. Rather than being strictly Hebrew names, as those in the New Testament, these have Greek, Roman and Aramaic elements, giving them quite a different flavor. So, moving beyond Mary, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, here are a few possibilities:
MAGDALA (place name)
And for boys: