Biblical Style, Without the Bible?
Biblical names have always been a huge part of English naming traditions. Just ask any John or Mary. Recently, though, the trend in Bible-inspired names has been as much about Bible style as Bible stories.
You can see that shift all over the baby name charts. Most of the core New Testament classic names, including our friends John and Mary, are in sharp decline. Rising in their place are names with clear markers of biblical sound and style. Take a look at the historical popularity of male names with the notably biblical-styled ending -ah:
Other distinctly biblical forms are soaring too, like -iel names. Uriel, Ezekiel, Adriel and Abdiel are top-1000 names today, at all-time highs.
There seems almost no limit to parents' thirst for biblical name style. If you pit an unappealing biblical character against an appealingly biblical name style, the name is now likely to win. Delilah, for instance, is ranked #172 and rising among American girls' names. And consider Messiah (#629 for boys), a biblical title that was not traditionally considered appropriate for a baby name. It has surged in the past decade thanks in large part to its biblical name-style form.
Can this biblical style exist separate from a biblical name origin? Increasingly, it can.
In Puerto Rico, where the -iel Bible names have been particularly popular, that biblical ending has split off to become an all-purpose combining form. A decade ago, seven -iel names ranked in the top 100 for Puerto Rican boys, every one of them biblical. (Gabriel, Daniel, Abdiel, Yadiel, Ezequiel, Adriel and Jadiel.) Today the -iel count in the top 100 is up to a whopping 17, including non-biblical creations like Kenniel and Joniel.
In the U.S., you can see the biblical style phenomenon in the girl's name Lilah. That name was virtually non-existent 20 years ago, and didn't crack the top 1,000 until the year 2006. By last year, though, it ranked #306 among girls' names, with over a thousand American girls receiving the name.
Other variants including Lila and Leila have also been soaring, but not quite so suddenly and not out of the blue. Lila and Leila are sweet old favorites rediscovering their past popularity. Lilah is distinctly modern. Yet time and again, I've seen parents of young Lilahs say they chose that version as an "old-fashioned" spelling. Since the spelling is not actually old-fashioned, and since -h endings weren't particularly common in the old days, I'm pretty sure that what they really mean is it looks biblical.
Adding an -h puts Lilah in the company of Sarah, Leah, and Hannah, and, of course, Delilah...a name that would have been quite the stunner back in "old-fashioned" times.
In other words, the name isn't so much biblical as biblicized. It's the same kind of parental impulse that created the Irishized name Meaghan out of the Welsh nickname Megan. Because in baby names, spelling is style -- and style is meaning.