Hayaven backwards: on the meaning of meanings

Feb 18th 2009

Not long ago, a reader wrote to me about a name she saw in the newspaper that gave her pause: Nevayah.

For those of you new to the baby naming wars, the name Nevaeh is a one-of a kind phenomenon.  It was dreamed up by one prominent parent in 2001, based on an anagram -- it's "heaven" backwards.  The idea caught on like wildfire, so that today it ranks #31 among all U.S. girls' names, ahead of the likes of Katherine and Jessica.  The anagrammatic origin was the key to its appeal.  As I wrote in my book, many parents see it as "a loving secret message to a child."

But when the 2006 baby name statistics were released, I noticed something surprising.  The name Neveah -- note the spelling -- also cracked the top-1000 list.  In 2007, it moved up 100 points higher.  Haeven backwards?  What's the idea?

Some of those alleged Neveahs are likely to be transcription errors.  The -aeh ending is non-standard in English, and somewhere in the data-entry process someone could have easily transposed it to the more familiar -eah, as in Leah.  But I suspected that a large number of the Neveahs were real, and that the transposition was done by the parents, intentionally.  They saw that the -aeh ending was awkward, so they "corrected" it to something more familiar.

Since then, a rising tide of creative respellings supports that belief.  Not only are little Neveahs on the upswing, but so are Niveahs, Naveyahs and Nevayahs.  There's little chance that Nevayah is a mere transcription error (or that the parents think the world beyond is "hayaven").  Rather, those parents did what so many contemporary parents do: they looked at a popular name and decided to personalize it to make their child's name unique.

But there's a big, big difference between Nevayah and, say, Maddasyn.  Nevaeh's spelling is its meaning.  Respell it, and it means nothing!  Which makes it...just like every other name.

Nevayah and friends are the ultimate demonstration of how names have a life far beyond their literal origins.  This has been true for time immemorial.  You may be able to trace a name back to its Old English meaning, but even back when Old English was New many of the familiar roots (Eg, Ethel, Bert, Dred, etc.) had become standardized as name elements. They were recombined at will, regardless of meaning.  Yep, 12th-century parents were already doing their own version of mashups like Gracelyn and McKayleigh.

As soon as a word becomes a name, it takes on a new meaning.  It is a social construction, shaped by the people who bear it.  Which is why traditional name dictionaries, fascinating as they are, tell us only a small piece of the story.


February 19, 2009 11:52 PM

T: Maybe Sabine? I'll second Josephine. I think that to go with Cordelia, you need something a little fancy. While I like names like Rose and Pearl in other contexts, they feel a little plain paired with Cordelia.

re: significance of meaning: I don't think I'm that big on meaning either. I don't want to go around telling people what my child's name means. But I think meaning could be a helpful way to decide among the many many names out there.

nikki: based on today's conversation, i think my advice is to check another book!

February 20, 2009 12:17 AM

"In my baby name book 20,001 Names for Baby by Carol McD. Wallace it says Alisa means great happiness in Hebrew."

Melissa C., I think this is the name either you or the book had in mind:


(I cut and pasted to get the Hebrew characters.) The name is spelled with a zayin (z-sound). It's not either Elisa or Alisa. Aliza has a meaning of cheerful, joyful.

There is also another Hebrew name Simcha which means happiness.

February 20, 2009 12:33 AM

re: meanings: It also seems like the meaning of a name can't be captured in the short tidbit that's given in some books. Folks have mentioned Charlotte meaning "little woman" or "woman" for example. Given all I've learned about Charlotte here today, I can see where someone would get that meaning, but understanding it in relation to Charles/Carl changes it a lot. Similarly, I've always read that my name means "bright fame." WTF does that mean? (I don't really care what it means; I just think it's a positive sounding, but ultimately meaningless definition.)

T: Rosalind and Cordelia together make me think Shakespeare. Not necessarily a good or bad thing, depending on what you are after.

February 20, 2009 10:40 AM

Miriam- I'm glad to know that part of my name's meaning was correct. It doesn't surprise me, given our conjectures here, that these baby books would extend from the word "fair" to "pretty" in addition to the "white" meaning as they are often grouped today. I'm perfectly happy with the simple white/fair meaning (and thank you for the history of the words!). I think I'm starting to hear the conversations these authors had in their heads (maybe;),

"Charlotte comes from 'man' but it's a girl's name so it MUST mean 'woman,' and Jennifer comes from 'fair' which also means 'pretty' and what parent won't love that??"

Obviously I'm having a little fun projecting... don't mind me:)

February 20, 2009 10:44 AM

T- I've lost track of all the names suggested for you, but I think something along the lines of Rosalind and Cordelia would work well. Similar in length and feel, but with not too many overlapping sounds. What do you like from what's been suggested?

February 20, 2009 10:47 AM

@Miriam and others-Thanks so much for the informative discussion of name meanings. It has been very interesting reading. I personally don't put that much weight into meanings, esp if the name "sounds" good. I like the name Charlotte (and Claudia for that matter) and if I were having any more children it might be on the list.

T-I like some of the names you've picked even though I generally would not use them as they are too old-fashioned sounding for me. Cordelia is pretty. Marjorie and Dorothy are okay. Dorothy makes me think of Elmo's fish. However, is was my grandma's name. Her mn was Constance. So I might do Dorothy Cordelia. Others have suggested Linnea and Anastasia which I think are much more lovely then Winifred or Theodora. Isabelle and Eleanor would be out for me based on popularity. So my choices would be:
Dorothy Cordelia
Marjorie Cordelia* (rearranged for flow)
Rosalinda Dorothy
Anastasia Cordelia
Anastasia Dorothy
Marjorie Eleanor
Penelope Marjorie
Dorothy Annette*
Marjorie Louise
Linnea Cordelia

February 20, 2009 11:02 AM

Thanks, Nicole S., for your explanation of why names' meanings are important to you. Your explanation makes sense to me, but it's not something that I feel.

I feel the same way when people talk about televised sports. I understand why they're interesting--they're sort of like athletic soap operas--but I just don't find them intriguing myself.

Miriam, I was in graduate school when the philology curriculum was disbanded. It was very disheartening for all of us in the building (I was in Comparative Literature, which was later folded into the English department--that's the last they'll see of my contributions!).

By bill (not verified)
February 20, 2009 11:25 AM

t- those names rule

am i the only one who can get behind Winifred & Cordelia? I prefer the names that don't end in A to match. I also like Penelope, Rosalind, Imogen, Cecily...

By Amy3
February 20, 2009 11:28 AM

T -- I like Imogen and Penelope best.

February 20, 2009 12:10 PM

Elizabeth T., I too have never cared that much what names mean. I'm far more interested in the history of a name (that's why I have several first name dictionaries) and the popularity of a particular name, past and present. I was amazed and excited when I happened upon Baby Name Wizard soon after it came out. I love to gather stories about the names in my large family and have added some to namipedia, with the intent to eventually do them all.

An example: Jonathan (the name of our second youngest grandson): "In colonial New England Jonathan was such a common name around Boston in 1776 that the British called all American Revolutionary soldiers "Brother Jonathan". This nickname had the effect of causing Jonathan to go out of fashion, both in the U.S. and Britain, though it remained in quiet use. It was rediscovered in the 1940s as parents looked for an alternative to John, making the name popular again." That's far more interesting to me than the meaning of the name/word Jonathan.

February 20, 2009 12:49 PM

Patricia, I agree, that's really interesting!!

By Eo (not verified)
February 20, 2009 1:10 PM

bill-- Yes, Cordelia and Winifred very nice. In fact, Winifred would perhaps be my second choice, next to Imogen!

Both Winifred and Imogen emphasize the intellectual and slightly austere side of Cordelia, rather than the "frilliana". Ditto your choice of "Cecily".

Nice to have the hard C of Cordelia and the soft C of Cecily. All of these choices do have a rather Shakespearean or late medieval or early Renaissance flavor. Nice!

Along those lines, I also wonder if the very old name "Jocelyn" would work with "Cordelia"? Or would Jocelyn be perceived as too "sporty" or something to be compatible?

I too don't like the idea of two "ending-in-a" names together for twins.

Spotted on one of those "bringing home baby" shows on the Learning Channel-- an Ethiopian family, recently arrived in America:

grandmother: Ellene
new mother: Katsu
baby: Anaya

All of the names have an appealing, somewhat familiar to Western ears, ring. There was also a sister whose name I didn't catch, but she had twin toddler boys named "Lucas" and "Rafael". Those names perhaps reflect a more assimilated frame of mind, maybe because her husband appeared to be American or European...

I wish Easternbetty would check in to discourse on Ethiopian names!

By Heather RC (not verified)
February 20, 2009 1:10 PM

I'm really enjoying the comments on this post, especially about name meaning/origin. I'm curious about the name Gareth, its meaning and pronunciation. I would say it something like GAIR-ith. What is the usual and/or "correct" pronunciation?

By Prairie Dawn (not verified)
February 20, 2009 1:19 PM

All this talk of beautiful girls' names like Charlotte and Cordelia has inspired me to post my list of potential girl names for our baby who is due in approximately 5 weeks. This list is unfiltered-- meaning that my dh has provided only limited input. (The "timing" has not been right to discuss girl names with him yet-- I think he's still a little burnt out from all the talk of boys' names. ;)

No particular order:

Leah/ Leia
Eleanor (nn Leni or Nora)
Maren (nn Mare)
Sylvie (husband did reject this)

This child will be a sibling to Lucia (LooSEEah), nn Lulu. NNs are kind of important to us b/c we all go by nns on a regular basis (which make Cora, Leah, Clara problematic). This child's mn will most likely be Raquel, after a close family member, although this is not set in stone.

I'm turned off by the trendiness of Josephine and Eleanor (and Clementine?), but I LOVE these names.

Marina was inspired by my dd's suggestion to name a baby girl Ocean. She still insists that if the baby is a girl, her name will be Ocean. I have always liked the name Marina and this recent development brought it to the forefront in my thoughts.

Comments and other suggestions are welcome. We prefer classic names that "travel well". Thanks, everyone!

By T (not verified)
February 20, 2009 1:42 PM

These are great suggestions! I think we've added Josephine and Rosalind to the list, officially. They have the kind of "heft" we're looking for, without being too frilly (Cordelia is frilly enough), and they could lend themselves to good nicknames (Jo, Josie, Lindy).

Also, I wish we didn't already have too many Elizabeths in our families, because that's right in line with what we're looking for.

The meanings of names don't really excite us at all, and if we are purposefully using relatives' names for our daughters, I want them to be exact, so I'm not keen on using Pearl or Margaret for Marjorie, or Dorothea for Dorothy. I wish my husband's grandmother's name had been Margaret, though, because I love that name.

My husband also suggested Adeline last night. I love Adelaide, but we have a friend with a daughter with that name, and I'm always a little concerned about "laide" being in it (because it means "ugly" (f.) in French, just visually, even if the name's history doesn't have anything to do with that). Adeline is close.

Also, if this helps any, if one of the babies had been a boy, he would have been Henry Nanton (Nanton after my grandfather). For boys' names, we also liked Theodore, Arthur, Frederick, Graham (also a family name).

So our list is growing. I don't know how we're going to decide.

By lizpenn (not verified)
February 20, 2009 2:13 PM

Louise: I hope you go with Charlotte Louise, of the list you provided. They sound great together and Charlotte has two cute nn's, Charlie and Lottie. And the tradition of handing down the mother's name as the daughter's mn seems to me a nice gesture toward less patriarchal naming practices, and just a sweet gift to give your daughter.

T: What fun naming taste you have! I've always been a fan of Winifred (again, two good nn's : Winnie and Freddie) and am always trying to talk it up to people. If you like Cordelia, how about another L.M. Montgomery-inspired name? There are so many. I'm thinking of Philippa, one of my favorite characters from the series. Rosalind with Cordelia shifts the association from Montgomery to Shakespeare, who's also a trove of great female names: Viola, Ophelia, Miranda (which I believe Shakespeare coined in The Tempest), Bianca. Just don't name her Goneril!

By lizpenn (not verified)
February 20, 2009 2:14 PM

Just realized Ophelia is completely out because of the rhyme with Cordelia. Rhyming twin names=ick. Oh well, that's a pretty heavy literary legacy to saddle a kid with anyway.

By Alr (not verified)
February 20, 2009 2:23 PM

I am thrilled to see the topic of Ethiopian names arise! I've been lurking on these boards for a little while in the hopes that I might get some inspiration for my future child (don't know the gender) who will be adopted from Ethiopia. The process is long and exhausting, so I have very little idea of when he/she will be referred to us- hence my delay in making this a topic of conversation on this board just yet... but now that it's brought up I can't help myself.

How do you all feel about the pros and cons of giving a child a name this is in 100% cultural context of where they were born, but not where they're raised? I do want this child to know and love his Ethiopian culture, but I struggle with the downside of having a name that no one in the states will know how to say/spell. Any thoughts are welcomed. :)


February 20, 2009 2:31 PM

Prairie Dawn: Your comment about your husband being burnt out from talking about boys' names makes me wonder how name enthusiasm influences when we choose to find out the sex of our babies. I could see an NE NOT wanting to know in order to have the opportunity to discuss both boys and girls names, but I could also see an NE wanting to know because she's (usually she) got so many names to think about and so extensively, that she needs to narrow.

I vote against Leah/Leia just b/c it seems like so many Ls with Lulu. Might get tongue-twisty.

Since you're concerned about popularity, I'd stay away from Josephine and Eleanor just b/c you've got so many other great names (unless these are the only ones your husband likes or something). I don't think Clementine is that common though, is it? Maybe will be date-stamped if that's your concern, but that's really hard to predict I think. What would you use for a nn for Clementine? How about for Anneliese--Anna? Lisa? Annie? Liesy? Hrm... again, I'd stay away from L nns. Is Rina ok with you for Marina? Hrm... are you worried about Lucia and Marina being so similar in sound? Maren is also sea right? I think given all this, my favorites are Cora, Maren and Anneliese. Of these three, Maren may travel least well I think...

T: Not sure if you noticed, but Cordelia and Adeline both have "deli." I think I like this parallel sound; it's a connection, but definitely not matchy. Or not the expected/common kind of matchy at least. I'm not sure whether to pron the final syllable LEEN or LINE though... if that is something that would bother you.

February 20, 2009 2:37 PM

Prairie Dawn

For Cora Raquel and Clara Raquel I don't like the fn/mn combo because of the repeating "ra" sound, if you decide you like that as the mn. The sound issue is true for me of Eleanor as well. Clementine Raquel just seems like an odd pairing style-wise. With Raquel I do like:
Leah/ Leia Raquel
Maren (nn Mare) Raquel
Marina Raquel
And Josephine Raquel and Anneliese Raquel are nice too, although I like the others better.

If you don't go with Raquel how about:
Maren Eleanor
Maren Leah
Maren Cora or Clara
Josephine Eleanor (long but nice)
Eleanor Cora
Clementine Leah
Anneliese Sylvie
Marina Sylvie
Marina Claire (or Clare)

I am really loving Maren and Marina. I think they're nice with Lucia, it's cute that they have the Ocean connection and they're unusual without being weird!

By cileag (not verified)
February 20, 2009 2:41 PM


Love the name Marina---wonderful cadence and very cross-cultural I think.
Maren, with a nickname Mare--do you pronounce it Mare-en? I've only heard it the Scandinavian way, which is usually Marr-en.

Alr--I think it's completely fine to give children a cultural name, I'd just make sure that it was relatively easy to spell/pronounce, probably more so than if it were a more common name, just to try to cut down on confusion. However, I once had a family who named their daughter Pewu, pronounced just like Pee-yew! It meant something lovely in their native African language, but was a poor choice for an American child.

throwing in my two cents on other posts.
Penelope is great with Cordelia. Cora and Penny! Adorable!
And I too like Charlotte Louise.

February 20, 2009 3:28 PM

My two cents: I love Penelope and Cordelia, two fabulous underused names. (Of course so are Dorothy and Marjorie).

I also love the name Maren, but will warn you after 2 decades of Megans it is easily misheard/misread. Raquel is a neat choice.

International names and adoptions: I think a great deal of this has to do with the age of the child at adoption. I couldn't change a 6 year old's name without his or her consent, but would probably bestow a more English friendly name (or nickname) on a 6 month old.

My SIL & BIL are adopting a 2.5 year old right now and are struggling with this very issue. I have been keeping my mouth shut - I think it is the kindest thing I can do. I'm sure they'll make a decision that works for them and their new son. (But the temptation to come here seeking a sounds similar in English name has been VERY strong).

By Cathie (not verified)
February 20, 2009 3:34 PM

T, what about Esme with Cordelia? (Ez-may)

By bill (not verified)
February 20, 2009 3:39 PM

oh yeah Cordelia & Clementine (sorry for stealing)

where is Clementine becoming trendy?

By jennifer h (not verified)
February 20, 2009 3:49 PM

@Prairie Dawn What a great list! You couldn't go wrong with any of those, IMHO. Cora and Josephine are my favorites. I'm having a hard time pairing those with the mn Raquel because it seems to be a different style of name. Of your list, Leah seems to fit best with Raquel. Is the mn Rachel a possibility to honor the close family member? It seems to match with your list better. That is only my opinion though...I quite like Josephine Rachel.

By Guest (not verified)
February 20, 2009 3:50 PM

Alr--my (limited) knowledge of Ethiopian names is that, depending on the religion/region--there are many names that are actually from Hebrew & Greek. This website seems to reflect this as well. Don't know how good the site is, but there appear to be many Ethiopian names that would travel well.http://babynamesworld.parentsconnect.com/category-ethiopian-names.html

By sme (not verified)
February 20, 2009 5:12 PM

New babies:

Kingston Thomas:
This is the first Kingston that I know of. I'm sure there is no chance the parents would have come up with this name if little Kingston Rossdale didn't exist. I don't know the parents well but I am disappointed in their choice of a celebrity inspired name. I sound like a name snob saying that, but it is how I feel. Thomas is a family name.

The mother is a friend of a friend and all I know is that Louella is a family name. I have never heard of it before but it seems to make some great nicknames - Lou, Lulu, Ella, Elle. The name makes me think of the song from 101 Dalmatians...
Cruella de ville, cruella de ville

February 20, 2009 5:22 PM

Apparently Louella Parsons has faded completely from public view. Anyone remember Heda Hopper? When I was a girl, Heda/Hedy was fairly common. Not any more....

By Liz & Louka (not verified)
February 20, 2009 5:29 PM

Alr, if it were me (which it wouldn't be, I admit) I'd be inclined to go for an Ethiopian name with a possible American-style nickname(assuming you're in the USA). In the same way that Barack lends itself to Barry. I just looked up Ethiopia in Wikipedia and found a musician called Teddy Afro (real name Tewodros Kasahune) - that's the sort of thing I would consider.

By J repeated (not verified)
February 20, 2009 6:01 PM

Miriam: I hate to hijack this thread for my own (a tiny bit selfish) purposes, but I may never again get the chance to ask such a worthy source! Do you have any knowledge of the meaning/derivation of the name Joanna, my first name? I have heard both that it is a feminine of the name John, and that it somehow means "God is gracious." After all the discussion today about the lack of "real" meanings in baby name books, I wondered if the "God is gracious" meaning is at all true. Any thoughts?

T: I *adore* the name Cordelia and think Penelope is right in line with its sound and feminity. Love your style!

By Eo (not verified)
February 20, 2009 6:23 PM

Air-- How extremely thrilling for you! We ended up adopting our son from the foster care system (which he entered at a week old) here in the States, but I feel a kinship with and excitement for other adoptive families...

A lovely thing about Ethiopia is its strong and ancient history of Christianity, resulting in some interesting saints from the country. I looked it up and noted several Samuels, a James, an Abraham and a St. Moses, among others.

So, one way to bridge cultures would be to give the name of an Ethiopian saint, whose history you could discuss with your child as he/she grows up. He would be named for an actual Ethiopian, but would probably have a Hebrew or Greek name very familiar in the West...

Of course, this may not mesh with your naming style at all, but it's an option...

Alternatively, you could google "Ethiopian names" on the net and find one that seems both appealing and accessible...

February 20, 2009 7:04 PM

Arl, my husband and I adopted 7 children (4 as babies/toddlers; 3 school-age) from Korea and Vietnam and gave them all standard English names, just like the kids they would be growing up with. When they grew up and had their own children, they all chose English language names for them too. Our son who has the strongest ties to his birth country (became fluent in Korean, married in Korea, spends several weeks there many summers) gave his two sons, who will be growing up mostly in the US, English first names and Korean middle names.

Having known many Korean/Vietnamese adult adoptees, I've observed that their interest in -- and feelings of connectedness to -- their birth countries -- or not -- is a very individual matter. I don't think this can be advanced by giving the child a first name from his/her birth country. OTOH, most kids want to 'fit in' and being an adopted child from a foreign country in an interracial family may be enough to deal with without adding an unknown ('strange') first name to the mix.

Many immigrant families I've known gave their children an English language first name and a middle name from their own language. I would suggest you follow this pattern if you'd like to include an Ethiopian name in your child's full name. If you can use one of his/her original names that could prove very meaningful to your child later on.

By Almost There! (not verified)
February 20, 2009 6:37 PM

I wanted to jump in. My husband and I are due in eight weeks, and I'd love your input about names. We would like to name a child after my husband's grandmother, Marion, but haven't found many names we love yet. We don't know the gender. I'd rather choose a name I love than a name I don't love as much, just for the connection to Marion, but if we can find a name that works, it would be wonderful. I would like a name that ages well with the child and travels well. I don't want anything too popular but also nothing made up. We are Jewish.

Leora, Talia, Tamar, Yael, Marina, Lydia, Imogen, Ingrid, Sabrina, Sabine, Simone, Natalie, Lila, Vivian (nn Vivi)

Boys: (this is much harder for me)
Leon, Emil(e), Jesse, Jonah, Ezekiel (nn Zeke), Benjamin (would want a nn, not Ben or Benji)
I do like some more modern Israeli names but am not sure if they are too "out there": Eyal, Idan, Yoav,Yuval.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and/or suggestions.


February 20, 2009 6:38 PM

J repeated--

Yes, Joanna/Johanna are female versions of John/Johan which ultimately come from the Hebrew Yochanan by way of Greek. Yo refers to God and the root of "chanan" is 'grace,' so yes God is gracious is a suitable meaning. A related name is Chana/Channah/Hannah/Anna/Anne/Ann/Ana etc. Again all these names are derived from a root meaning grace. So, someone named Anna Grace (and I bet there are some in these days when Grace is popular as a middle name) is essentially named Grace Grace.

By Eo (not verified)
February 20, 2009 6:44 PM

Air, I just struck gold! Type this into Google: Top First Names in Ethiopia & Penpal Statistics.

They list the top 100 names for both boys and girls. The number one slot for girls: "Eden". And the number one name for boys: "Solomon".

I love both of those. But down the list are many attractive indigenous names as well, like "Melat" for girls, and "Yared" for boys...

Anyway, it might be fun for you to give it a look...

By J repeated (not verified)
February 20, 2009 7:05 PM

Miriam, Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of knowledge. I'm glad to know I wasn't completely in the dark about my name's meaning all these years and equally glad my middle name isn't Grace! :)

Eo/AlR, Eden and Solomon are great names that would work well in both countries. The decision on whether to give your adopted child an Ethiopian or American name is, ultimately, up to you, but I do like Patricia's suggestion to use an American first and Ethiopian middle name. The child will still "fit in" name-wise but will have some connection to his birth country. Let us know what you decide!

By Eo (not verified)
February 20, 2009 7:12 PM

Almost there! May I put in a word for your choice "Jonah"? One of my favorite writers and opinion columnists of all time is Jonah Goldberg. He is irrepressible, funny and brilliant, and the name is infused with all those qualities for me.

I like your "Ezekiel" as well. "Gideon" is another favorite, and both have good potential nicknames...

We have a Benjamin, whom we definitely don't call Ben or Benji! I guess you're not considering Benjamin Netanyahu's nickname, "Bibi"? It probably works great in Israel, but might be construed as feminine elsewhere...

You've come to the right place for Benjamin nicknames. A few to get you started:







Golly, at one time I knew more, but my head's a muddle. Our favorites were Binns and Baines, as both had personal significance for us.

But we settled on "Banks" for several reasons. Telescope the B-A-N from Benjamin, then add the old English element, "kin", an endearment meaning "little". "Ban-kin". Shorten it up-- voila, "Banks"!

A similar thing happened hundreds of years ago to "John", among others. Became "Jen" plus "kin"= "Jenkin", then "Jenks" and eventually evolved even further to our much-beloved "Jack"...

As an irredeemable NE I live for this stuff!

February 20, 2009 7:19 PM

Almost there--

Let me recommend my own name Miriam to honor a great-grandma Marion. Miriam has an abundance of little girl cute nicknames (the current one popular in Israel and here in the US is Miri) and is entirely suitable for Supreme Court justices and presidents. But the real question is what was Marion's Hebrew or Yiddish name. If Malkah is the name hiding behind Marion, then perhaps Regina or Molly. If the original name was Michal, then maybe Michelle, Michaela (in spite of all the horrid creative spellings running around), or even Brook(e). If it's some other name, let us know, and that will help with coming up with some possibilities.

There are a lot of modern Israeli and less common biblical names that I think will work for a child growing up in the US. For girls Adina, Ahava, Aviva, Aliya, Alona, Ayala, Dalia, Dorit, Eliora, Eliana, Gal/Galit, Ilana/Ilanit, Irit, Liat, Margalit, Nessa, Ora/Orit, Rina, Riva, Roni/Ronit, Shira, Tova(h),Varda, Ziva (like Pablo de Cote's character on NCIS). For boys many of the above also have masculine forms or are unisex (unisex names are popular in Israel today). Other suggestions include Ari, Dov, Gil, Ira, Lev, Noam, Omri, Oren, Ron, Ronen, Shai, Tal, Zev/Zeev, Ziv.

Modern Israelis deliberately favor names that are short, easy to pronounce, and travel well to other cultures. Names are often gender-neutral and are typically common words that have pleasant. positive meanings, often referring to nature (plants, animals, and other natural phenomena).

Given all the (IMO) weird made-up names these days, I think a well-chosen modern Israeli name will not be too out there for a Jewish child. I have indeed seen some of these names given to non-Jewish children as well.

February 20, 2009 7:36 PM

Eo, interesting website, Top First Names in ______ & Penpal Statistics. I tried it for a couple of countries, including USA. It appears that the list of top names in a particular country is tabulated from their list of penpal names -- mostly school age boys and girls. Thus, these wouldn't be the top names for an entire country or for any particular age group. Still, the lists provide a list of many of the names commonly found among the school-age population and could be helpful for parents seeking a baby name from another country.

The top 10 USA boys' names:

For girls:


By sarah smile (not verified)
February 20, 2009 7:54 PM

Alr, congratulations. I've considered adopting some day and I very much like the idea of maintaining some tie to the homeland in the name. It strikes me that in choosing Ethiopia you probably have an option that Patricia really didn't have in Korea, which is to choose a name that fits in both cultures. So if you were adopting from Guatemala I might suggest Isabella, Viviana, etc. I'm not sure what the corresponding names would be for Ethiopia, but it seems likely to me that you could find some nice choices that would be known, if not common, in both places. Or you could simply choose an Ethiopian name that sounds pleasant and is not too difficult to say/spell in English. Given the rise in popularity of African names in the US, I don't think that would make a child stick out in quite the same way as some of my friends more complex multi-syllabic Asian names.

By sarah smile (not verified)
February 20, 2009 8:00 PM

Almost there, I also like Miriam, nn Miri, to honor a Marion. Or what about Maren (discussed above), or just Mara?

I have friends who also wanted a Hebrew name that worked well in English and they chose one I didn't see in either your list or Miriam's: Eitan/Eytan. I like it very much - it's not too difficult to learn, pronounced more or less the same way it's spelled, and seems to fit in very well with the Aidan's of the world without being too common.

By Prairie Dawn (not verified)
February 20, 2009 8:21 PM

@RobynT-- For me, not wanting to know the sex of the baby has nothing to do with the naming process. We just like having a little mystery in our lives :) It *is* fun to come up with two lists, though-- fun for me that is, maybe not for my dh.

@cileag-- Maren is Mare-en. Is that an odd pronunciation? Do most people pronounce this name Marr-en?

@JennyL3igh-- I agree with the sound issues with Cora Raquel and Clara Raquel. Also, Eleanor Raquel with the double "r".

@jennifer h-- the middle name Rachel is not an option. Raquel was my idea as a way to honor a family member named Rachel who recently passed away, as well as my dh's grandmother, who was Rachelle. I don't want to use these exact names and I thought Raquel was a nice variation.

I don't think Clementine is popular but I do think it is on the rise. I think I read somewhere (Freakonomics blog?) that it is being forecast as an up-and-coming name.
If we did go with Clementine, we'd use Clemi as a nn. For Marina, I like Mira as a nn. And for Annelise, Anna.

Current faves: Cora Josephine, Maren Raquel, Marina Raquel.

February 20, 2009 8:34 PM

For those who might be unfamiliar with Hebrew names, Eitan/Eytan is the original form of Ethan.

By Almost There! (not verified)
February 20, 2009 8:36 PM

Many thanks for the suggestions! You have given me lots to think about and to take to my husband. I do like the name Miriam, but one of my husband's first cousins just named a daughter Miriam, and my childhood best friend is named Mara... unfortunate, because they are both lovely names.

Eo, thanks for all of the Benjamin nicknames. I do like Binns and Baines. I wouldn't go with Bibi... just too politicized for an infant, I think. But I do like another Israeli nickname--Benya/Binya, short for Benyamin, the Israeli form of Benjamin. Do you think it would sound too feminine in the US?

Thanks again for the speedy feedback!

February 20, 2009 8:39 PM

Hi Miriam,

If you're still taking requests, I have a question regarding the meaning of my name Tirzah. I've most often seen the definition "pleasant" and "delightful." But sometimes I also see the definition "cypress tree." Could you shed some light on these two different meanings? Thanks for any information you can offer.

February 20, 2009 9:11 PM

Arl: It might be a good idea to ensure your child has a name that will work in the African American community as well, as he will be African American, despite traveling a different path to that identity. Patricia's input on the names Asian immigrants bestow made me think of this. (Personally, I'm very interested in the concept of an Asian American naming practice [i.e. whether there is one]. So that's where I'm coming from I guess.)

Almost There!: I love the name Marion, although I prefer Marian--seems less... matronly? Or perhaps Mariana, Maren (which have come up recently), Mary or Marie (which could be done double-barreled, e.g. Mary Alice, etc.), Maureen, Rianna, Maria, Aria, Margo... Are you thinking of Tamar and Vivian as having some of the same letters as Marion? I love Tamar, fwiw, and only would not use it myself because I feel like it belongs to a culture that's not mine. I like Vivian too. And Marina from your list. I guess Leora has some of the same sounds as Marion too, but I am never sure how to pronounce this name.

For a boy, maybe Marlon (I orig read Marion as Marlon in your post), Mark, Marcus, Orion, Rion/Ryan, Aaron, Ari. Ooh, I like Leon from your list. I think I would agree with you about the names you think are too "out there." Ira from Miriam's list has some of the letters from Marion. However, when I was a child I thought Ira was a girl's name. I remember coming across this name in a picture book, Ira's Sleepover I think and being very confused. To be fair, the Jewish community where I grew up was virtually non-existent. And the two other two times I've heard the name have been on men: a character on Mad About You I think and scholar in my field. So it is probably just me, but just putting it out there.

re: list of penpal names: fascinating! do you think those who participate in penpal programs skew toward middle or upper middle class?

re: Maren: The one I went to school with rhymed with Karen.

February 20, 2009 9:15 PM


There are two names: Tirtzah spelled with a tsadee (to use one transliteration for the letter name) and Tirzah with a zayin. Tirtzah means agreeable, pleasant, and Tirzah means cypress tree. As you no doubt know but others might not, Tirzah is both a female personal name and a place name in the Hebrew scriptures. Presumably the place was associated with a cypress grove, and many Hebrew personal names, both biblical and modern, refer to plants, animals, and other natural features.

This goes to the issue of name book meaning and accuracy. No one can be knowledgeable in all the languages from which our name stock is drawn. So if the name book author/compiler cannot read Hebrew, he/she may not be able to distinguish two similar names. Since the tsadee is often transliterated in English as Z (e.g., Tzipporah/Zipporah), someone who knows zip [tzip :-)] about Hebrew may well assume that Tirtzah and Tirzah are the same name. Anyone who can read the Hebrew will see immediately that one is spelled with a tsadee and the other with a zayin, two entirely different words.

Name books can be read for fun and ideas--something all of us who hang out here are wont to do. But if accurate information is the aim, the book should be evaluated like any other information source. What are the credentials of the individual(s) who wrote the book? Best are the name guides that are published by major academic presses and general publishers with good reputations for their reference works. Obviously a book with a panel of editors who specialize in different languages is more likely to be accurate than a little pocket guide sold by the register in the supermarket, and just as obviously there is a lot out there between these two extremes. Also a specialized guide to names in a particular language or from a particular source (like the Bible) is more likely to be accurate than the one entitled "100,000 Unusual Baby Names" (the latter probably mostly good for a laugh).

I know from experience with my students that there is a real tendency to put credence in what is published (in hard copy, on the web, and in other forms of media) just because it has been published. I spent a lot of time teaching my students how to evaluate sources, and I have to remind myself to be skeptical too. I can tell you that university presses have published a lot of junk, even though all of their books are supposed to be refereed. Authors are often asked to supply names of potential referees, and they immediately supply the names of their six best friends who then say the book is hunky-dory. It is published, and the author gets tenure or a promotion or a raise. La-dee-da....Reader, be ware.

By Amy3
February 20, 2009 9:26 PM

Prairie Dawn -- I definitely vote Marina Raquel for a girl. You mention liking the name a lot and it has the bonus of capturing your daughter's desire to be part of the naming process. It sounds great with Lucia (nn Lulu) and travels well.

February 20, 2009 9:52 PM

bill-I dislike Winifred because as lizpenn suggested there are only 2 common nn's Winnie and Freddie. Eww for me-Winnie makes me think of the horse sound and Freddie to me is a boys name (which I also don't care for). Lizpenn did however, think up a few other beautiful to my ear names. I DO like Ophelia, Miranda, and Bianca. I am always trying to get ppl behind Bianca.

T-Add to your list:
Bianca Cordelia
Dorothy Miranda
Dorothy Josephine
Also is Frederica an option since you like Frederick so much.
However, Ophelia does sound too matchy with Cordelia.

So Prairie Dawn- I like for your choices:
Cora Raquel (i prefer it sp Raquelle)
Rachel Maren-note change to Rachel
Clara Raquel
Marina Josephine
Corinne Anneliese-note change to Corinne

February 20, 2009 10:20 PM

Okay just read all the posts that posted while I was thinking.
Prairie Dawn-Sorry about Rachel, I guess you can cross that one out.

Almost there-I like Marina for you too. Marion has many different associations for me. It does sound "old" to my ears. Reminds me also of Marion Jones-not bad, just nms. Rhiannon, Irina (might have made that up??), Marie, Miranda are some others I like. For boys, maybe Marlon, Marcus/Mark/Marc, Arlo, Ari, or Noam.