New Spiritual Baby Names: Bodhi to Zen

By Katinka

Call it the “Bodhi effect”: spiritual names are on the ascendance at the moment — but these aren’t the religious names of yesteryear, steeped in Biblical tradition. These are novel word and virtue names, place names with spiritual significance, terms borrowed (some might say appropriated) from exotic Eastern belief systems… Names that give an aura of spirituality, without being rooted in a particular religion — or even in religion per se.

In this age of individualism and anti-establishment feeling, those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” are a rapidly expanding group. And — as ever — big social trends such as this go hand-in-hand with big trends in naming.

Let’s take a closer look at four key categories into which these new spiritual names fall:

Personal Nouns

First came the news story about a Tennessee judge ordering the parents of a baby Messiah (which, incidentally, currently ranks at #218) to change his name, because “it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ”. Then came Saint West, so named because his arrival was “a blessing” after a difficult pregnancy. And earlier this year, celebrity power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z chose the name of a 13th century Muslim mystic, Rumi, for one of their twins.

There was a time when it would have been sacrilege to give your child a name like Arcangel or Prophet, Christ or Savior, but those are all names that made the Social Security list last year — as did a whole host of ancient deities, from Apollo and Atlas to Zephyr and Zeus.

And Reese Witherspoon anticipated a trend when she and Ryan Philippe named their son Deacon back in 2003: this occupational name (referring to a church cleric) now ranks at #472 and has been joined by numerous other ecclesiastical titles, from the humble Priest and Parson to the high-ranking Abbot and Bishop.

Modern Virtues

The classic Christian triad of theological virtues — Faith, Hope, and Charity — has given way to a vast range of modern virtue names, running the gamut from peaceful Pax to bold Brave. In general, these modern virtues are an altogether more dynamic and aspirational bunch than their pious forebears. And, in contrast to popular virtue names of the past and present — think Constance and Prudence, Destiny and Serenity — they’re just as often drawn from verbs, adverbs and adjectives as nouns: Cherish and Chosen, Ever and Excel, Fortune and Forever, Kismet and Kindred, Promise and Prodigy, Triumph and True, Valor and VictoriousS Significant Places

Significant Places

Madonna has a Lourdes, Brad and Angelina have a Shiloh, and Chris Hemsworth is just one of the many famous fathers with daughters called India. Place names have long been a fashionable category in the baby name sphere, but there has been a definite upsurge over the past decade or so of geographical choices with some kind of spiritual resonance: from places of pilgrimage like Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mecca; to spiritual paradises like Arcadia, Eden and Zion; to distinctive Biblical place names like Ariel, Canaan, Galilee, Jericho, Nazareth, Salem, and Sinai.

 And although the parents of the eleven baby Bethlehems born last year were probably religiously motivated, chances are that at least some of the 2123 sets of parents who picked Zion, or the 2603 who chose Eden, did so more for the names’ sound, style, and generic “spiritual” appeal.

Symbolic Objects and Concepts

Another kooky Kardashian baby name which made headlines last year is Dream — though, in actual fact, the daughter of Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna was one of 137 newborns given that name in the US in 2016. It’s a novel word name that hints at spiritual transcendence, as do other abstract choices like Bliss, Haven, Journey, Lux, Miracle, Praise, Reverie, and Spirit.

Some new spiritual names do still feel markedly religious, though in a non-traditional sense. There were, for example, five baby boys named Sabbath in 2012 (the year musician Zakk Wylde chose the name for his son), and Sunday was given to 34 newborn girls last year. Perhaps influenced by relatively long-established picks like Genesis, Heaven (and Nevaeh), and Trinity, word names on the rise in this category seem to skew feminine: Divine and Divinity, Temple and Torah, Vesper and Veda.

File that last example together with Bodhi (now at #363) and Zen in the increasingly popular category of names drawn from Eastern spiritual practices. The Vedas are a body of ancient Hindu scriptures, whose name derives from Sanskrit veda, meaning “knowledge”. Bodhi, meanwhile, is the Buddhist concept of “awakening” — the gaining of insight into the true nature of things, and release from the perpetual cycle of Karma and Samsara (rebirth) into a perfect state of Nirvana. And yes: all of those terms were bestowed as baby names in the US in 2016.

Name-lover, linguist and serial procrastinator Katinka is mum to two small humans and a fledgling blog: Onomastica.

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5 Responses to “New Spiritual Baby Names: Bodhi to Zen”

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tfzolghadr Says:

December 19th, 2017 at 8:11 am

I met a little Zen in real life. It seems like a perfect sweet spot name: familiar, on-trend, unique, and a similar sound to the familiar names of Ben, Ken, Quinn, Penn, Ren, etc.

beynotce Says:

December 19th, 2017 at 10:23 am

I recently met a little Zenith, which feels like it fits right into that last category alongside Journey and Genesis.

thesilenceinbetween Says:

December 20th, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Since you mentioned Bethlehem — Belén, which is Bethlehem in Spanish, ranked #757 in the US last year (and IMO is much prettier than Bethlehem).

katinka Says:

December 20th, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Yes, I’m quite partial to Belén myself! A nice, unusual route to Bel or Bee, as well as a strong and elegant name in its own right.

JossieChris Says:

December 21st, 2017 at 8:32 am

I would add Clementine to the modern virtue names list meaning merciful. I also love Sevilla and Vienna for cool place names. Memphis too!

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