Name Spotlight: Levi

Oct 10th 2008

Levi is a classic biblical name.  It is not, by and large, a classic English Christian name.  Written as Levi or Levy and pronounced LEH-vee or LEE-vee, it comes across as distinctly Jewish to most American adults.  But pronounce it LEE-viy and the name's image suddenly shifts.  Over the past generation, the name's whole identity has made that shift -- a shift encompassing a rich American stew of history, geography, religion and culture.


For most of the 20th century, Levi kept a low profile.  It didn't crack the top 200 nationally until the 1980s.  The most telling pattern, though, isn't when Levi came back, but where.  Take a look at this map, showing the states where Levi ranked among the top 100 boys' names 25 years ago:

map of the name levi

You're looking at the modern frontier, American states with rugged terrain and mostly sparse population.  All are overwhelmingly Christian.  So why Levi in those regions?  Because it's a "pioneer" name, one of the Old Testament men's names that conjure up a world of trappers, homesteaders and prospecters who ventured out to make their homes and fortunes in a rough and wild land.  The name Levi is one of the pinnacles of that hard-scrabble style, thanks to Levi Strauss and his legendary jeans.

The tale of Levi Strauss is one of the best known origin stories in American business.  It was the California gold rush, and young dry-goods purveyor Levi saw the toll that the 49ers' hard labor took on a regular pair of trousers.  So he fashioned some tough work pants out of sailcloth with copper rivets at the pockets, and a nation had a new workwear uniform.  The Levi Strauss company's frontier heritage is commemorated in the mule drivers on the label of my Levi's 512 mom jeans, and in the many young Levis living across the Mountain West.

So far, so good.  But the first point to ponder in this tale is that the pioneer Levi who propelled the name's transformation to Christian rancher chic was himself a Jew.  Levi Strauss was a paragon of the San Francisco Jewish community, a benefactor of Jewish causes and a member of the city's first synagogue.

The next intriguing tidbit is that Levi's famous work pants weren't actually invented in the 49er gold rush at all.  Strauss was born in Bavaria in 1829, and emigrated to New York to join his brothers in the dry goods business in 1847.  After five years in the family business he headed West, establishing his own successful dry-goods supply firm in San Francisco.  In 1872 Strauss got a letter from a tailor who had devised a clever method of using rivets to strengthen work pants; he hoped that Strauss, by then a prominent businessman, would partner with him to patent and develop the idea.  The two joined forces, and a clothing empire was born.

And one final item to put the whole Levi story in perspective: Levi's given name was Loeb Strauss.  He restyled himself as the more American-sounding Levi after arriving in New York.

So there you have the story of Levi: a tale of enterprise, ingenuity, self-reinvention, ethnic mishmashing, and romantic mythologization.  Is there any more American name?

Comments

1
By A. (not verified)
October 10, 2008 11:43 PM

huh... Never heard it pronounced either of the first two ways, even when speaking of the Biblical name... so I would have thought the last pronounciation would sound more "Jewish" in the sense of sounding more "Old Testament"-ish...

2
By Trish (not verified)
October 10, 2008 11:58 PM

The only Levi (LEE viy) I've known IRL had brothers Wyatt and Cody, and a sister Cheyenne. Not having a strong religious background, that family "shaped" my perception of the name (along with the jeans), so I don't immediately identify it as a biblical name, but as a Wild West name.

3
October 11, 2008 12:11 AM

Growing up in New England I can't say that I recall ANYONE being named Levi in my circles. However, since moving to PA it now comes across to me as biblical in the sense that many Amish people have that name. Akin to Jacob maybe. I also do know a young boy in my dd's preschool pron with long I at end.

4
By enterbrainment (not verified)
October 11, 2008 12:43 AM

what was the name of the tailor strauss partnered with?

5
By Chimu (not verified)
October 11, 2008 1:11 AM

In Australia I've noticed a few Levi's (pron. LEE-viy) popping up recently. It definitely seems to be more of a cool name rather than a biblical name here though. Some of the older Levi's may have more religious parents the new ones seem to be just liking the name.

6
By Guest (not verified)
October 11, 2008 1:29 AM

I agree with Chimu, there aren't many Levi's (Lee viy) here but they are becoming more common. I suspect the biblical influence is limited and that in fact many parents are naming their children after the jeans. I really like the story of Levi Strauss though, what a fascinating tale.

7
By Tara (not verified)
October 11, 2008 1:31 AM

oops, that was me above, I meant here in Australia and my name is Tara not Guest!

8
By Austin (not verified)
October 11, 2008 3:06 AM

This is the perfect example of a name that most people would associate first with its American usage as the brand name of jeans. I did the same for years even though I knew a kid named Avi Levy in public school while growing up in NY. I assume then that parents naming a child Levi are from states who closely identify with the rugged connotations of Levi jeans but like the name's Biblical roots as an added bonus.

I wonder if names like Hannah or Rachel might be popular a generation from now for both their Biblical roots and nostalgic associations with popular TV characters?

9
October 11, 2008 3:07 AM

Leh-vee and Lee-viy aren't very common in Jewish communities either. Especially not in modern day Israel. It is, however, an almost certain way to detect a Jews by having this as his/her LAST name.

I've known/heard of 3 Lee-viys in my entire life: a little religious Jewish boy in Brookline MA, Matthew McCounaghey's newborn son, and Bristol Palin's boyfriend and baby-daddy.

Quite a mish-mash of cultural and religious backgrounds I would say. :-)

10
October 11, 2008 5:26 AM

There's a little boy called Levi at my son's (London, Jewish) school - fits with the trend for biblical names, along with my son Judah and Ruben, Noah, Samson, Jonah etc. I think he is Levi like the jeans. Not very religious, so the name is cool and with an awareness of Jewish roots.

11
By Hazel (not verified)
October 11, 2008 7:20 AM

We aren't remotely religious, but also gave our son a biblical name: Solomon (he goes by Sol). We are now expecting a girl and are stumped. Her name certainly needn't be biblical, but should have some history behind it and not be overly trendy.

My husband is keen on Olive but I'm not convinced. Names that have been considered and rejected for various reasons include:

Isla (not pronounced as written)
Evelyn (reminds hubby of old ladies)
Chloe (lovely but too popular)
Sena

Any suggestions appreciated!

12
By JB
October 11, 2008 9:22 AM

1) Laura, I don't believe you are wearing "mom jeans."

2) My maiden name was Levy, pronounced LEE-vee, and growing up in NY in the 1970s, it was really as common -- if not more common-- than classic American surnames like "Smith" or "Jones." There was also a very famous bakery product called Levy's Jewish Rye, whose slogan was "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's." Kids would often tease by calling me LEE-viy (like the jeans)... So it's weird to me that a name so closely identified with a consumer brand and -- at least regionally -- so strongly identified with an ethnic group, would take old. As a mom, the only Levi I have met in my children's circles in NYC was the adopted Mexican son of a (Jewish) daddy-daddy couple.

3) To Hazel: My daughter's middle name is Evelyn, after a paternal great-grandmother. When we named her it also sounded old and fusty to me. Now I sort of wish we had used Evelyn as a first name; it is classic and distinctive, soft yet strong. And if you use the English pronunciation EVE-lin, it sounds a little snappier and lends itself to the nickname Evie.

13
October 11, 2008 10:05 AM

I screeched when I saw that this post was about the name Levi. I *just* suggested this name to hubby this week for our baby boy that is due in January. Weird!?!? Levi on the mind. Funny thing is that my husband was like "isn't that a very Jewish name?" I'm so far from religious (or cultured) that I don't know which names are from what religion (or nationality).

Hazel: I love Olive and Isla.

14
October 11, 2008 10:10 AM

JB-I LOVE Levy's Jewish Rye. So yummy! I haven't seen it around here and had almost forgotten about it. Beefsteak doesn't really compare. I also loved that Levy's was fairly thin. You could just eat it right out of the package with a little salt and not even have to make a sandwich. Ooh the memories.

15
By Jane P (not verified)
October 11, 2008 11:25 AM

Saw that another Jane joined the board. Welcome!

I am from Arizona and I think of Levi very much in terms of the Wild West. The Levis I have met could all equally well have been named Cody or some such.

In other news... I'm expecting, too. (Seems to be a trend lately). I just had my first ultrasound and discovered to my surprise that it's fraternal twins! So I will be needing a LOT of naming help from this board in the upcoming months!

(After my husband got over his initial shock, one of the first things he said was, "Hey, now you get to name TWO babies!")

16
By J&H's mom (not verified)
October 11, 2008 11:33 AM

I definitely perceive Levi as a "Western," name.
I do have a Jewish friend who has a baby Levi (her other sons are Jordan and Issac), but she pronounces it jean's style.

Interestingly, I have exactly the same perception of the name Caleb. Anyone else?

Others I'd immediately suggest for sibling names: Coby/Cody, Asher, Luke, and Dakota.

Now, Wyatt is interesting. It's definitely a name tied to the Old West, but I think it has a broader appeal. Maybe it's just because it's always been a favorite of mine, while I've never been more than lukewarm on Levi!

Hazel: I do like Olive.
You have an interesting mix of styles.
Off the top of my head: Simone, Penelope, Sabrina, Nola, Astrid, Camille, Calista, Ivy, Violet,Poppy, Georgia
It seems to me you're looking for something a little bit offbeat and confident, but definitely feminine.

17
By J&H's mom (not verified)
October 11, 2008 11:39 AM

Jane P,

Congratulations!! Selfishly, I do hope we get in on the naming!

18
By Christie (not verified)
October 11, 2008 11:53 AM

I have a brother named Levi (pronounced like the jeans). He was born in 1978 in southern California. A neighbor girl ran home to her mother with the announcement "It's a boy and they named him Corduroy!"

19
By Jennifer (not verified)
October 11, 2008 11:57 AM

I found it a bit amusing that Laura expected enough Americans to come into contact with Hebrew- speaking Israelis to form an association of "leh-vee" as Jewish, but "Leev-eye" as not.

The only Levi I knew growing up-- in the 1980s, I add, in the 'genteel' South-- was a family of Levi, Hannah and Faith, all Christian. I have three associations: 1) non-practicing Jews who wish to honor their heritage but not conform to traditional Jewish naming patterns; 2) the Wyatt Earp family of trendy cowboys; 3) evangelical Zionist Protestants who are very fond of Old Testament names. I would say #3 are currently the most prominent demographic group so, in a feat of simple vector multiplication, they win out.

20
October 11, 2008 11:59 AM

Loeb.... now there's a name for you!

I'd be inclined to like it if it didn't conjure up images of ear bits.

21
October 11, 2008 12:26 PM

Growing up in Montana in the 80's I knwew plenty of Levis. I didn't realize it wasn't a common name elsewhere or that it might be considered Jewish until I was well into my twenties.

22
October 11, 2008 12:39 PM

Levi Strauss the jeans mogul on the one hand and Claude Levi-Strauss the anthropologist on the other....

I have never met a Jewish man (or boy) with the name Levi (either Hebrew or English). However, the surname Levy/Levi is the second most common Jewish surname in the US (Cohen is first and oddly Miller is third). I grew up in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, so my first association with Levi as a name would be Amish/Mennonite.

I have also only heard Loeb as a surname. I would not use it as a given name, because my first association would be Leopold and Loeb, not nice. As for Leopold, the thing that comes to mind is Leopold Bloom, and all of Joyce's word play with the name, also not nice.

23
By Melissa C (not verified)
October 11, 2008 1:08 PM

Here in Canada I know a couple Levi's all of which pronounce it Lee-viy. None of which are Jewish or religious. I think there parents thought the name was nice because of its offbeat sound.

24
October 11, 2008 1:12 PM

Congrats, Jane P. Wow, two babies to name, how delicious!

I have a questions about the name Isaac. I keep seeing it spelled Issac on this board. Is that just a typo, or is it an accepted variant? I would pronounced Isaac-EYE-zak and Issac ISS-ak, so it seems like a strange spelling to me.

25
By bill (not verified)
October 11, 2008 1:18 PM

hmm

the mountain west crowd might not want to use Levi anymore once they find out it's an anagram of evil

26
By Aybee (not verified)
October 11, 2008 1:30 PM

Valerie- I have only ever seen Isaac-- Im guessing its a typo.

Add me as another New Englander who has never met a first-name Levi.

Hazel, some suggestions:
Eleanor
Astrid
Cordelia
Pearl
Maude
Beatrix
Daphne

Good luck!

27
By J&H's mom (not verified)
October 11, 2008 1:42 PM

Valerie-It should have been Isaac. Sorry for the confusion.
There is a little boy at Jack's school whose name is spelled something like Izackh.
I'll try to get the exact spelling Monday.

I think Jennifer had a pretty good summary of Levi's appeal. I'd add that I think there is some overlap between the 2nd and 3rd category-a la Laura's post on regional naming patterns.

28
By ET (not verified)
October 11, 2008 1:50 PM

The first Levi I remember coming across was actually a girl (on wife swap), so I always thought of it as a boys or girls name.
Recently however I've come to like it alot more for boys.

Just a question do people pronounce Wyatt as Y-att or What? or something else entirely?

29
By Birgitte (not verified)
October 11, 2008 2:16 PM

New baby alert:

One of the Norwegian princesses just gave birth to her third daughter:

Emma Tallulah.

Sibs: Maud Angelica and Leah Isadora.

Trivia: The baby's grandpa, the king, has said that he is only going to call her Emma, thank you very much... :-)

30
October 11, 2008 2:39 PM

Hazel - how about Poppy, Edie, Mia or Sasha.

Sol's very trendy here in North London.

31
By Trish (not verified)
October 11, 2008 2:51 PM

Hazel- the name that just popped into my head for you is Delphine. Has the adorable nickname "Fi"- said "fee", which conjures up the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant's character calls Kristin Thompson's character "Darling Fi...". Love the combination with Solomon too.
Just a thought!

32
October 11, 2008 3:20 PM

I was watching a costume drama last night set in England in the 30's and one of the women was called Effie. Does anyone know what on earth that is short for? Ephraima? Effraimina? Nefertiti? Ethel?

33
October 11, 2008 3:48 PM

I knew a girl called Effie, short for Euphemia. Parents had found the names in a Victorian novel.

34
By Dogwood Girl (not verified)
October 11, 2008 4:51 PM

Great post. I think that the Levi Strauss story is quintessentially american, but not so much the name. If you asked me for distinctly American names, I would think things like Dakota, Cheyenne, Sierra, America, Harmony, Liberty, Georgia, Virginia, (and any other state names).

35
By Anna (not verified)
October 11, 2008 4:55 PM

Hazel, I met a girl called Percephone, and her parents called her Percy. Cute, quirky, retro and androgynous all in one!

I could do with some naming help too... We're adopting a little girl with special needs soon, and struggling with a name for her. We were ALMOST set on Alice, but because of her disability, she will likely have pronounciation problems, and having met children with this disability, "S" can be especially problematic. They seem to pronounce hard consonants the best. So now we're thinking of Roberta. Our other children are Matilda and Philip, and we could do with more suggestions...

Oh, and also, if you wanted to honour someone called David in a girls name, what would you do? :)

TIA!

Anna

36
By Paz (not verified)
October 11, 2008 5:11 PM

My husband's family has at least four generations of guys named Levi. They are a Christian family from rural central New York. When my husband was born 32 years ago, the family tried to bribe his mom into naming him Levi but she refused. I would be willing to consider this for any kid we may have some day, but I am being told there are too many Levis in the extended family nowadays, and I guess nobody would be interested anymore. I've never met the other Levi's and doubt our kids ever will, but I guess it's gotten more popular in recent years. Hmm... since my family is from Israel, maybe I should combine both cultures and name the kid Levy. I wonder what his family would say to that.

37
By Philippa (not verified)
October 11, 2008 5:12 PM

"Oh, and also, if you wanted to honour someone called David in a girls name, what would you do? :)

TIA!

Anna"

I had a friend named Vida, named for her father David (presumably short for Davida). It's pronounced Vee-da.

38
By Dogwood Girl (not verified)
October 11, 2008 5:20 PM

My husband had the same problem with Evelyn, and with Vivian. (Both of my grandmother's names.) I love both, although Vivian is just going to be too popular with the Pitt/jolie baby.

I love Solomon! it has that wise feel to it, like my daughter's. (Matilda.) I like Ruth a lot. Other suggestions:

Leah
Magdalene
Adah
Acacia (this actually has both biblical and the flower theme to it, and when I think of Solomon, i think of the plant Solomon's Seal.)
Bathsheba
Micah
Beryl (strong-sounding and means good luck)
Beulah
Drusila
Elizabeth (my daughter's mn) and I have a friend named Elizabeth, but everyone calls her Eli, which is really cute for a girl.
Esther

Good luck!

39
By Another Sarah (not verified)
October 11, 2008 5:36 PM

Count me as another Jew who has never met a Levi in real life. I did know a boy named Lev, though. Perhaps someone who knows more about Hebrew names would know if that's a variant or a separate name entirely.

For David, I think it depends on how obvious you want the connection to be. In addition to Davida, you could try Divada, Davi, Davina, Davinia. Or you could use Dania - I know it's closer to Daniel but it does have the same beginning and I've always liked it.

40
By Riot Delilah (not verified)
October 11, 2008 5:46 PM

Here in the UK, the female equivalent of David is Davina or, occassionally, Davinia. A hugely successful TV presenter here is Davina McCall, her kids are Holly, Willow and... Chester.

Princess Marthe Louise of Norway has got interesting taste eh? Maud was the name of Queen Victoria's daughter who married into Norwegian royalty, and Isadora is also relevant historically to the family that way. But I believe Leah was inspired by a certain character in Star Wars! (Sorry, in high school some of my best friends were scandis and my obsession with their royal families has yet to go away!)

41
By Jane P (not verified)
October 11, 2008 6:59 PM

Anna:
I quite like Roberta. It is easy to say and spell, but you don't hear it every day. You could call her Berta or Robbie for short, too.
It might be a stretch, but David and Amy both mean "beloved."

42
October 11, 2008 7:04 PM

"I did know a boy named Lev, though. Perhaps someone who knows more about Hebrew names would know if that's a variant or a separate name entirely."

Lev is an entirely separate name, or rather two separate names. It is a Hebrew name meaning 'heart' and a Russian name meaning 'lion.' So a Russian Jewish boy might be named Lev when his Hebrew name is Yehudah or Ariel, just as a Yehudah or Ariel from other countries might be Leo/Leon. An Israeli boy might simply be named Lev meaning heart. An example of someone with this name in its Russian form is the actor Liev Schreiber. His birth name is Isaac Liev, and according to Wikipedia (for what that's worth), his mother named him after Leo (Lev in Russian) Tolstoy.

43
October 11, 2008 7:19 PM

Cody, Dakota, Wyatt and for that matter names like Arizona and Montana seem distinctly western to me. For girls the same applies to Sienna, Sierra, and Cheyenne.

My ds has a friend named Wyatt pron =Why-it.

Jane P-Double Congrats!! Do let us help if you need advice.

Anna-Hmm a name that matches Matilda+Philip and does not have too many soft sounds. I'll have to do some thinking and report back.

Honoring a David, the first thing I think of is Davida. Maybe a meaning name would work also. There was someone a while back who was trying to honor and thought of characteristics of the honoree and names with THOSE meanings so maybe that is another option.

44
October 11, 2008 7:31 PM

Anna, I love both Matilda and Alice. Not a big fan of Roberta, personally. Since Alice isn't an option for you, some suggestions:

Camilla/Camille
Rose (would the Z sound be a problem?)
Evelyn
Hazel
Greta
Imogen
Jane
Penelope
Caroline
Clementine (which isn't actually my name, for the record)
Opal
Eloise
Nora
Joanna/Johanna
Phoebe

45
October 11, 2008 7:41 PM

@Valerie: The only Effie I have ever known was short for something like Eftyhia (not sure of the spelling, but I'm fairly sure it would be Greek).

@Anna: I automatically think Davina.

46
By Kira (not verified)
October 11, 2008 7:47 PM

Hazel,

I really like Isla. I tend to look at names with a Spanish-influenced eye - Isla has a lovely meaning of "island" in Spanish, but Sena is very close to seno, which means "breast." Not that there's anything wrong with that! :) Just a thought. That said, I like the simplicity and gentle sound of Sena.

My oldest son is also a Solomon.

Best of luck to you!

47
By Guest (not verified)
October 11, 2008 9:05 PM

I only know of one Levi and he is a Lutheran in the southeast. He has a brother who was named Ethan before Ethan was cool. (80s kids) I think their parents just wanted obscure Biblical names, and there is no better place to look for those than in the OT.

48
By Abigail (not verified)
October 11, 2008 9:19 PM

Morningside Heights in Manhattan, and we have two neighborhood Levis under three (one is ours). We liked the combination of Old Testament-ness and American-ness of the name (Eli(jah) was another contender).

I'd heard recently that there was another Levi and just met him and his mom in the bank line the other day! If she's reading this, hi Victoria!

49
By Easternbetty (not verified)
October 11, 2008 9:31 PM

The idea that Old Testament names being used for non-Jewish kids is either very, very old (early colonists) or very, very recent has never resonated with me, perhaps because I spent a lot of time in evangelical Protestant churches growing up in the South of the 80s. Many of the European-American, Christian kids my age were named Hannah, Abigail, Levi, Isaac, Jacob, Caleb, Leah, Rachel, Rebekah, Ethan, Amos, and such. (Of course, we also had our fair share of Courtneys and Ashleys and Kevins). They are now in their late 20s and early thirties.

Yet others above have pointed out that in the northeast, Levi was largely Jewish in association. Amazing (and valuable) that even with national, standardized media and entertainment, there is still so much regional variation in U.S. culture.

50
October 11, 2008 9:37 PM

bill: in our consideration of the name levi we were definitely struck with the number of anagrams: evil, live, vile, veil!!