Good old biblical names

Jan 25th 2007

For much of the Western world the Bible is the cornerstone, the fundamental reference -- not only for faith but for traditional baby names. Biblical roots instantly anchor a name. Elijah is a contempory name with a creative flair, but its biblical bona fides make it immune to charges of excess trendiness or kreativity. It's a "good solid Bible name."

The Bible is full of these good solid names. (For boys, anyway.) In addition to prophets like Elijah you have judges like Gideon, kings like Solomon, apostles like Matthew, and long rosters of the righteous. But you also have characters you wouldn't want anywhere near your kids. You wouldn't expect a name like Pilate or Haman to be chosen for its biblical roots any more than Voldemort would be picked as a literary name. Yet in many cases, when parents consider "good, solid Bible names" the Bible part trumps the good.

Cain was the Bible's first murderer. After killing his brother Abel he was condemned to wander the Earth a vagabond. The name Cain first cracked the list of the top 1000 names in America in 1994.

Delilah was the duplicitous lover of Samson who persuaded him to reveal the secret of his strength, then betrayed him to his enemies. The name Delilah has risen fast over the past decade and is now 583rd most popular girl's name in America.

Before you take those names as signs of the times, note that Delilah is merely reclaiming its 19th-century standing: it peaked at #486 back in 1891. In fact, parents of that time were surprisingly willing to plumb the darker corners of the Bible for baby names. Here are a some more sketchy characters whose names hit the U.S. top 1000 during the late 1800s:

Amon was a king of Judah who forsook the Lord and worshipped idols, and was assassinated by his own aides. Popularity peak: #823 in 1887.

Ananias was an early Christian who lied about the extent of his gift to the Apostles. He was censured by Peter and fell dead. Popularity peak: #898 in 1883.

Nimrod was an obscure king in the text of the Bible, but later traditions established him as a tyrant and enemy of God -- and his name as an epithet. Popularity peak: #1000 in 1880.

Outside of the top 1000, you can find at least a handful of 19th-century Americans named for biblical scoundrels of every stripe: Onan, Amnon, Herod, and yes, Pilate and Haman.

All of this poses a practical problem for a baby-name writer. As a rule, when I include a name in a list I don't consider it an endorsement. I'm not necessarily advocating Zodiac or Taffeta, or for that matter John or Mary. But if parents turn to a list labeled "Biblical Names," it's likely that they're looking for a positive religious connection. Onan is a name from the Bible, yet I can't imagine including in on my list of Bible baby names. (Perhaps pet names...Dorothy Parker famously called her pet bird Onan because he spilled his seed on the ground.)

The dividing line isn't clear, though. Some major biblical figures like Saul are mixed bags of honor and treachery. Other names like Judas are shared by multiple characters of varying virtue. And the popular, Bible-drenched name Delilah surely belongs on a biblical name list, treachery or no. So don't be surprised to see an entry like this in a future edition of the Baby Name Wizard:


Jezebel
Jezebel was a queen of ancient Israel who turned the throne away from the Lord, used violent tyranny to force idolatry on the populace, and ultimately met a gruesome end. She was so irredeemably bad that her name has become a common word for a shameless, wicked woman. It's kind of catchy, though.

If you can't fill out the Baby Name Pool entry form...

Jan 22nd 2007

UPDATE: the contest entry form is now compatible with Internet Explorer 7. So come enter your guesses!

Thanks again to the readers who took the time to alert me to the problem.

Choosing the right mane

Jan 18th 2007

The time is long past. There's no going back. My husband and I should just accept it and let it go: it's five years too late to design a new birth announcment for our daughter. Even if we did just realize that her name is an anagram of...

CELEBRATING WEE INFANT!


Yeah, I know, you've already obsessed enough about your child's name. You've run a series of internet polls, researched name origins in the original Aramaic and searched phone records to assure that there's no other similarly named child in a 500-mile radius. Now you have to think about anagrams?

Of course not. Unless you're naming your daughter Nevaeh, it doesn't matter a whit what your child's name forms inside-out or backwards. Though of course Nomar Garciaparra was named for his father Ramon. And Nelle Harper Lee for her grandmother Ellen. But seriously, anagrams of the full name don't matter a whit, they're just pure fun. Of course here at the Zany Web Barmaid blog, fun with names is what we're all about. Once you've chosen a name you love, playing with anagrams is a great way to revel in it. (Sure beats boning up on your Aramaic.)

Try the Wordsmith.org anagram server to find the jumbled phrases in your child's name. (Tip: keep the "maximum number of words" setting low.) Expect to wade through a lot of chaff -- the winner we found in our daughter's name was surrounded by plenty of phrases about acne, bacteria and cannibals. If you manage to find the perfect phrase for your family's birth announcement, please do let me know so I can find some closure by CELEBRATING a WEE INFANT vicariously.


p.s. -- don't forget to enter your guesses in the Baby Name Pool!