The View from Abroad: A Look Back at the Future Part 2

Feb 26th 2010

Yesterday I talked about old-fashioned "lady and gentleman" names that were hot in Europe five years ago, and looked at whether U.S. parents had followed in those fashion footsteps. The result was yes and no -- yes for girls, no for boys.

Why the divide? As usual, each name has its own story. Phil is fighting against a middle-aged vibe in the U.S. and doesn't fit the dominant sound patterns of the moment: lots of vowels, -r and -n endings, and high Scrabble-value letters. Yet the European favorites that do fit those patterns fare little better here. Leon, Felix, Simon, Theo and Victor are all much hotter across Europe than in the States.

I think there's a broader pattern underlying the boy-girl difference. Here's the question that leaps out at me: If American parents aren't choosing "international gentleman" names like their European counterparts, what are they naming boys?

I believe the role played by the "gentleman" names in Europe is largely filled by Old Testament names over here. So instead of Leon, Felix and Theo, we have Caleb, Eli and Jonah.

The recent surge in OT names has been much stronger in the U.S. than elsewhere. 17 of the top 50 U.S. boys' names are now from the Old Testament. (That doesn't even count OT/NT crossovers like Michael and Joseph.) There seems almost no limit to the style here, with names like Ezekiel, Nehemiah and three different spellings of Isaiah in the U.S. top 500. And names like Jacob and Ethan, which are runaway hits here, are merely popular in the UK. Where we have a flood of Jakes, they have Jacks.

In the United States, Old Testament boys' names carry special cultural signals. They have a rustic pioneer style, owing to their 18th-19th century American history: Ethan Allen, Eli Whitney, Levi Strauss. That trailblazing aura appeals to a lot of American parents. As a nation, our style leans rugged rather than urbane; no fancy-pants boys' names, thank you very much. In fact, many of the Old Testament names are most popular in the rural, rugged parts of the country that also favor names like Colt and Maverick (two names that are virtually unheard of in Europe).

The Minuteman and Conestoga Wagon imagery doesn't play the same role in the European cultural imagination. Nor do the names play the same role in history -- just try to think of an Englishman named Eli. To European ears, then, Old Testament names tend to sound more esoteric, or more strictly biblical...or more Jewish. More than one American parent of an Old-Testament baby has told me of European friends being confused, or even concerned, that they chose such a Jewish-sounding name.

It's not a hard and fast rule, though. The Old Testament classic Reuben is a hot name across Europe but has gone nowhere in the U.S., despite its fashionable vowels and -n ending. That's a humbling reminder for those of us who seek order in the swirling chaos of name styles. You can have history, sociology and phonology on your side, and still be felled by a simple sandwich.


March 3, 2010 8:02 AM

I was just thinking last night how the secularity of Europe may be impacting the lack of Old Testament names. Now grant it I live in a part of the U.S. with a small Jewish population but if I meet a family with children with OT names I guess they are Protestants not Jews (I'm thinking of all those rugged boy names Laura mentionned - everyone seems to use names like Ben, Jacob, Joshua, and Adam). In the same way I mentionned before that I'd guess a family with a child named Benedict or even a Dominic would be Catholic.

By Eo (not verified)
March 3, 2010 9:46 AM

A quick question for our Irish experts. Is "Phelim" widely used in Ireland? Is it pronounced FEE-lim? I just ran across the name of Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer.

A quick Google revealed that it is an anglicization of an Irish Gaelic name meaning, roughly, "good forever". It was borne by a 6th century saint.

Phelim appeals to me, but then I seem to be partial to "Ph" names like Pheasant, Phoebe, Phrisdewith, etc...

For parents wanting to honor an Irish background, wouldn't Phelim be a nice addition to Connor or Liam? Is it any more "out there" than Lachlan?

March 3, 2010 9:56 AM

The problem that comes to mind at least with seeing Phelim in print (as opposed to hearing it) is the association with phlegm. I hope I don't sound too shallow - I taught middle school for a number of years and that may influence my thinking.

By hyz (nli) (not verified)
March 3, 2010 11:38 AM

another Laura, that was actually the same thought I had when I read it. I never taught middle school, but I did attend it for a few years. ;)

By EVie
March 3, 2010 11:58 AM

another Laura - Clare/Claire is one of my favorite names, and I've sometimes thought that if I used it for a daughter I would probably end up calling her Claire-Bear :)

AndreaJ - that's really interesting about OT names being used in rural England in the 19th century - that would explain why they show up in Thomas Hardy et al.

It seems to me that there are different groupings of OT names - I don't know how they are seen in Europe, but I wouldn't expect names like Jonathan, Daniel, David or Michael to be considered as "Jewish" as names like Noah, Solomon, Abraham, Elijah, etc. I know Jonathan and Daniel were being used by Christians in England in the 18th century, though I'm not sure of their subsequent use. Can any Europeans out there comment on whether I'm correct in assuming that? If so, I'd also love to hear if anyone has any insight as to why these names were able to jump the barrier, so to speak.

By Mirnada (not verified)
March 3, 2010 12:03 PM

As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't brought up with any religion in particular, but we're considering the name Jonah for a possible future boy name. I looked up the name on Wikipedia, since I'm not that familiar with the Old Testament (I know the barest outline of the story of Jonah and the Whale). The entry there describes Jonah as a "non-compassionate" prophet. I like the meaning of the name "dove", but was wondering of others out there have stronger associations of Jonah as a figure. Thanks!

March 3, 2010 12:27 PM

Reply to Becky:

What about Tamar, Yael, Noa, Dinah, Naomi or even Eve?
All less popular, but not weird sounding OT names for girls.

I happen to think Ruth is a good option too. Not super common, sounds classic, and how cute would a little girl named Ruthie be?

March 3, 2010 12:28 PM

yeah, phlegm is the first thing that came to my mind too. : / i like the sound though.

March 3, 2010 12:33 PM

Reply to Mirnada:

I think that Jonah is such a popular name, that most religious connotations surrounding it are weakening, by now. It's one of those trendy OT names that have taken on new life.

Personally, when I think of Jonah the prophet, all I really think of is A) he was a prophet B) he was swallowed by a whale but saved by God

I think the majority of the US population don't know the biblical story well enough to attach the non-compassionate attribute to him.

Strangely, Jonah has always been far more popular as a girl's name, in Israel due to the prophet vs. dove meaning.
As an Israeli and native Hebrew speaker, it's funny but when I think of a boy Jonah, I connect it to the biblical story. When I hear of a girl Jonah (or Yona), it says 'dove' to me.

March 3, 2010 12:45 PM


i like jonah. if it makes you feel any better, i was raised in the church (and still attend church) and i have never heard jonah described as a "non-compassionate" prophet. i like the story though and the person of jonah, so i don't think it's a bad connection. the name does make me think of the biblical jonah, but not in an overwhelming way, the way i would if you named your child oprah or something. the popularity of old testament names has made them seem more like "just names" to me, instead of specific characters. i don't think jonah is too popular though, is it? certainly nothing like noah. i quite like it though! :]

March 3, 2010 1:07 PM

EVie - one of Clare's preschool teachers did call her Clare-bear on occassion. I've wondered if there is a good mn for a Claire that would shorten to a cute nickname and when said together for on occasional "affectionate" use. Like if I had used Isabelle as a mn than my Clareabelle would seem more justified. Like how the Mary Katherines of the world sometimes go by Mary Kate. (I call my other daughter K@th@rine Rose - Katie Rose on occasion.)

Oh, and yes now that I think about it Jonah was definately a reluctant prophet but if I met a baby named Jonah I would think that it was another OT name that sounds fresh and new but has a history behind it. In the end Jonah's one of the "good guys". Hey, what David did was far worse and it hasn't hurt the use of his name.

March 3, 2010 1:17 PM

oh, yes. i mean i know that jonah was initially reluctant to be be a prophet (thus leading to the whole being swallowed by a whale thing), i just meant that i don't think anyone (including religious people) will hear the name on a child and think, "uncompassionate!!" it's just a nice name that has some history, as another laura said.

March 3, 2010 1:22 PM

Re Jonah--

Jonah has long been used to refer to someone who is a jinx. This usage was first developed by sailors referring to the biblical story in which Jonah is the cause of a great storm that imperils the ship on which he is traveling. The crew throws him overboard, the waters calm, and Jonah is saved from drowning by his 3-day sojourn in the belly of the whale. From its use by sailors to refer to someone believed to be endangering a vessel, jonah has been generalized to any person believed to be jinxing any enterprise. I don't know how familiar younger people are with the meaning of jonah as jinx, and I don't know that anyone still cares, but I have seen names rejected here for less negative associations than that.

By saree (not verified)
March 3, 2010 1:22 PM

i am a sarah and my grandma has always called me sarahbella, though my middle name is michelle. i also get saree and suri as affectionate family nicknames. clarabelle doesn't seem like a stretch to me!

March 3, 2010 1:26 PM

Mirnada- Jonah makes me think of the story of Jonah and the Whale, but I was brought up very religious so that's not surprising. Jonah gets bad-mouthed a lot by bible scholars because 1. he tried to run away from G-d 2. he was apparently, as you said, non-compassionate. I personally like the name though and you can't fully base your naming off of biblical meaning...for example many scholars hold Judah responsible for selling his brother Joseph into slavery...not such a great depiction, however he has a lot of good qualities as well and it is still a strong name with a great meaning so we chose it for our son anyway. I like the hebrew Yonah as well and the meaning (dove) is great.

So also I've been thinking, in the bible Judah and Levi (names of my sons) are brothers. We liked that when we were naming them, and truthfully many of the great names in the bible are the names of sons of Jacob (Benjamin, Asher, Joseph). The only daughter of Jacob was Dinah though, a name I don't love mostly because of the story of the Rape of Dinah in the bible. Will my daughter feel somehow left out because her name isn't linked to her brothers the way Judah and Levi are?

March 3, 2010 1:53 PM

Becky-Can you modify Dinah to maybe Diana or something or are you committed to the actual use of something Biblical? (I like Mirnada do not subscribe to much religious knowledge).

March 3, 2010 2:01 PM

I looked through the local listings to date this morning, in light of this post it is interesting that these are the top 5 for the year so far:
Olivia 4
Emma 3
Alexis 2
Ella 2
Isabella 2
*Laurel/Lillian/Sydney/Teagan also have 2

Brayden 3
Carter 3
Jayden 3
Joseph 3
Owen 3
Ryan 3
*Many boys names with 2 but span the gammet of Anthony/Nicholas/Christopher > Ethan/Caleb/James/Daniel >

Speaking of which, for those looking for a Simon match, how about Trevor?

March 3, 2010 2:10 PM

Becky -

Again, Tamar could be a good solution, since she was Judah's daughter-in-law, so still part of the family.

Except I would try not to mention that particular story too much, considering that she disguised herself as a prostitute in order to get Judah to impregnate her...

Still, I think Tamar is a great name. I want to use it for a future daughter, but my husband is worried people would call her Tammy.

By EVie
March 3, 2010 2:25 PM

another Laura - how about Claire Beatrice -> Clairebee? Mary Katherine always makes me think of the protagonist of Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle - she goes by Merricat. I always liked that! (though she's not a character you would want to explicitly name a kid after). I guess Claire Katherine -> Clairecat could work too. Remind me what your Clare's middle name is?

March 3, 2010 2:30 PM

oooh, yeah, tamar, i forgot about that story. i don't think it's SO bad though is it? i mean i know she disguised herself as a prostitute in order to get pregnant, but wasn't there a reason behind it? i am pretty sure judah was doing something really unfair. i think she was being completely cheated by judah and his sons, so she did what she had to do to survive. maybe not the most wholesome choice, but she was scrappy.
it is a good name though, but i also don't love tammy. however, i've heard some people pronounce it tay-mar.

March 3, 2010 2:40 PM


The story behind it was that her husband (Judah's son) had died, leaving her childless. In Judaism, in such a case, the departed's male lineage must continue in form of marrying his widow to his younger brother.

Judah's second son, Onan, had sex with Tamar, but refused to impregnate her. To quote wiki, he "performed coitus interruptus so that there wouldn't be any offspring he couldn't claim as his own, so God killed him".

Tamar then tricks Judah himself into impregnating her, in order to continue the family line. One of their sons is said to be an ancestor of King David (who incidentally a daughter Tamar).

This Tamar suffers a cruel fate when her half brother, Amnon, rapes her. Her full brother, Avshalom (Absalom) later has Amnon killed for this.

March 3, 2010 2:52 PM

yes. that's mostly what i remembered. except there's a third son that judah promises to her and then renigs on. i just thought there was some sort of...ramifications for her situation. i mean i thought that her livelihood sort of hinged on having an heir, that having an heir ensured she'd be taken care of and without one she would probably eventually be penniless, but judah refused to honor his duty to provide her with one (via one of his sons). at least this is what i was taught, but it's been awhile. it's a really interesting story though. i always forget how much gritty stuff is in the bible.

March 3, 2010 3:06 PM

saree - my clare's mn is actually Michelle as well maybe there is a logic behind my clareabelle after all.

By Eo (not verified)
March 3, 2010 3:31 PM

Ha, another Laura, I wouldn't have thought "phlegm" in a million years!

Just realized that that "phe" might in Irish be pronounced "fay" rather than "fee"-- seems to me that the surname "Phelan" might sometimes be pronoounced that way? Nice sounds either way...

"Jonah" is such an appealing, stylish Biblical name, and the Biblical Jonah did learn something very important about facing your situation head on.

I'd love it if other Biblicals like "Adoniram" (A-doe-NY-rum I assume is the pronunciation) got some traction...

March 3, 2010 4:25 PM

The part of the Jonah story I never liked is the end, when he gets mad at God for having compassion on the people of Ninevah...but no one seems to know that anyway, so I think you'd be safe Mirnada. Most people only know the fish part of the story, and even then, as Miriam said, they don't know the details of why Jonah ended up being swallowed by the fish.

I have friends who are completely non-religious, who named their son Jonah, and everyone thinks it's adorable, no one seems to think of the Bible spite of the fact that both parents coincidentally also have OT last names!

March 3, 2010 4:54 PM

anne with an e,
oh, yeah! i forgot that he got mad about that. i never liked that either. very hypocritical of him. i thought he realized he was wrong though, eventually, didn't he? maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.

ditto on your second paragraph. i know a similar couple.

By ErinW (not verified)
March 3, 2010 5:25 PM

Everyone seems so knowledgeable about names... I'd love it if you could weigh in on my choosing a girl's name dilemma:
I already have an Annabelle, and I'm really liking the sound of Adeline or Adelaide for our pending arrival. But, is this too much short a sound?
Annabelle & Adeline
Annabelle & Adelaide
And, what if we end up having a third girl- I don't want to be those people with all the same letter names, but I also wouldn't want her to feel left out(if #3 would be a boy, he'd be John, so no A problem there).
I am also considering Faye, Jillian, Evelyn, Caroline and Avery.
This is keeping me up at night!
Thanks so much for your help!

By saree (not verified)
March 3, 2010 5:43 PM

Do you call Annabelle by her full name or does she have a nickname?

March 3, 2010 5:45 PM

Eo- I've heard Phelim pronounced FEE-lim, but think FAY-lim is also likely, depending on the particular Irish accent.
Do you also like Philomena? That's a name that has been popular in Ireland. My personal favorite is Philomela (nightingale), but I realize I'm just free-associating here, and that they're not all connected!

March 3, 2010 5:46 PM

EVie, not sure why Jonathan and David, etc. have been more popular in the UK... will ruminate...

By ErinW (not verified)
March 3, 2010 5:56 PM

saree, sometimes we call Annabelle "Belle" and I think we'd end up calling Adeline or Adelaide "Addie" sometimes...

March 3, 2010 6:07 PM

ErinW - I wish I could say that they work fine together but to me there just a little too close. It's not just the a- beginning sound but also the 3 sylables. Now if you think they'll mostly be Belle and Addie then there's less of a problem. But still...I'd go with one of your other choices - I really like Caroline with Annabelle.

By saree (not verified)
March 3, 2010 6:13 PM

ErinW- both are beautiful names, but for me the possibility of having to do a third A name would stop me. What about Jillian Adeline or Jillian Adelaide?

March 3, 2010 6:27 PM

@ ErinW: I like Adelaide better of the two (but I'm probably biased as it's a family name for me). I understand that the 'A' initial is an issue but I have a friend with the initials ABR and her older brother and sister are both JHR with syllables being 2,2,3 and my friend is 3,1,1. She's never felt left out even though there is such disparity. I do also think that Caroline or Evelyn work and agree that maybe using Adelaide or Adeline in the mn spot would work.

Re. Tamar: I know a Tamar who I've never heard of as going by Tammy.

Super interesting on all of the Bible stories! I knew the whole Jonah story but the others I didn't, so interesting...

March 3, 2010 6:52 PM

oh, a. rose. does the tamar you know pronounce it TAY-mar or tuh=MAR?

March 3, 2010 7:05 PM

@ emilyrae: tuh-MAR

March 3, 2010 7:16 PM

draiad, thanks for the list. we're considering both Yael and Ruth as middle names for Zipporah or Shoshana. I do like Tamar but my dh has an Aunt Tamar so unfortunately we can't use it (an issue with many names we do like).

zoerhenne- we want to use something either biblical or hebrew, and though Diana is lovely it's not really linked to Dinah in any way other than sound/spelling.

ErinW- I prefer Adeline to Adelaide... the latter makes me think of the Guys and Dolls character, not necessarily a bad reference though. Adeline and Annabelle are close, and I worry about mixing the names up and the issue of using A names for future children. If you plan on calling her Addy then that differentiates them also. Despite it's popularity I really like Addison, which also yields the Addy nickname. I like Caroline Adeline/Adelaide and Evelyn Adelaide from your list.

By knp
March 3, 2010 8:44 PM

ErinW: I do love Annabelle AND Adelaide (my preference of the two you shared) and I love the nn Addy (which has the possibility to be quite popular with Addison, Adelaide and Adeline...)
but they are mighty close. My tongue trips when I say them together (I have to think quite hard to get it right).

Annabelle and Avery or Evelyn do not have that problem for me though, and I like them just as much!!

March 3, 2010 8:55 PM

Becky-Of course you want to stick to Hebrew/Biblical names. When I posted earlier, I had a super-huge headache and I think my brain just wasn't comprehending it was you. :)

ErinW-While Adeline and Adelaide are lovely names, they are a bit close to Annabelle. However, I like your other choice of Jillian and additionally think the A names would make good mn choices. Another thing to think about is pronunciation not only the A thing--I say Adeline=Add-uh-line but others say Aid-uh-line or even more of a -lynn ending. Adelaide is Add-uh-laid but ususally NOT Aid-uh-laid although it can be shortened to Ada as a nn. Anna_ and Adda_ sound WAY too similar and Aida is a bit too close too.
Theses might be some other choices if you are set on an A name:
Alice (completely different sound but popular)
or others that are not A's:
Juliet; Lucy; Victoria; Madeline
Charlotte; Mariah; Rachel; Ivy; Sadie
Celeste; Eliza; Eleanor; Margaret; Bethany
Samantha; June; Lisette; Penelope; Evelyn

I think my fave for you is Madeline (either the -lynn or -line ending and whatever sp you prefer).

March 3, 2010 10:05 PM

Erin W: I think whether the names are too matchy really depends on your taste. I think they are close enough that people might comment on them (e.g. "How cute: Annabelle and Adeline"); is that something you would get tired of? I also like to imagine names on Christmas cards to think of how they sound together. So how would you feel about signing your Christmas Cards "Husband's Name, Erin, Annabelle, and Adelaide" or whatever?

By Mirnada (not verified)
March 3, 2010 11:51 PM

Erin W: Annabelle and Adelaide are a little too much of a matched set for my taste, but I think Jillian and Evelyn are both great to pair with Annabelle. To my ear, Jillian has the sweet playfulness that Annabelle has. I really like those two together. I agree that Madeleine/line would be a good match as well.

Another Laura: I have some nicknames that no one would ever think were derived from my actual name. I personally kind of think it's fun when affectionate family nicknames become derived in secret, circuitous ways.

Thanks so much for all that information about the Jonah story. I guess a lot of the stories in the OT are about the mistakes that flawed humans make and the trials they endure, so it might be hard to find a name that's completely unsullied, huh? I do like that Jonah means dove (even - or secretly, especially - for a boy). I maybe wouldn't bring it up to the boy when he was 11, but...

I ran our current boy list by my husband again and Jonah definitely ranks the highest, so...

March 4, 2010 12:40 AM

It seems like the last week or two we've been going back and forth with the idea of using names outside one's culture. So what's everyone's reaction to a white non-Hispanic use of the name Socorro (for a girl). I've seen it on list of Marian names for a while and it's starting to grow on me and dh didn't shoot it down. The nickname Coro/Cora of course would be available. I doubt we'd have the guts to use the name as it totally doesn't go with our other kids names but I can't talk to or about my kids without mixing up their names so maybe we need a change in directions =)

March 4, 2010 12:42 AM

Reading the discussion on Jonah, I've just realized that Jonah would be an EXCELLENT opportunity to use the nicknames Joe and Joey. (I like both of them, but I think Joseph is a little heavy.) That makes it a historically grounded but fresh-sounding name with multiple traditional and attractive nicknames! It's the trifecta!

March 4, 2010 1:37 AM

I was watching the pilot episode of the new NBC series "Parenthood" last night and was intrigued by the names used. The show focuses on a set of adult siblings named Sarah, Adam, Julia and Crosby. I thought the first three names seemed very cohesive and could be a real life sibset but then Crosby struck me as way more out there than the rest. On the show though he's kind of the young eccentric, free spirited sibling though so I guess it makes sense that his name is different. The children of the siblings are Max and Haddie, Amber and Drew, and Sydney. Not bad choices on the whole. The show stars Lauren Graham, who played Lorelai Gilmore on my long time favorite Gilmore Girls and I got to thinking about the name Lorelai...has anyone ever met one IRL? I've never heard the name anywhere but on film/tv and was wondering if it actually got use, according to SSA Lorelai is 884 and Lorelei is 680...

March 4, 2010 2:05 AM

i watched that last night too and thought the exact same thing! crosby definitely stands out next to adam, sarah, and juila. you forgot jabbar among your list of their children though. :] have you seen the movie the show is based off of? love that movie!

March 4, 2010 3:55 AM

i know a real life lorelei! she's in her late 30s i think and from the Midwestern US.

By Bue
March 4, 2010 6:30 AM

Becky - My high school gym teacher had a daughter named Lorelei. SO cute on a real little girl. She'd probably be about 18 or 20 now.

And I like all your name choices, but I think Shoshanah Ruth is just about the most beautiful name in the whole wide world! :)

another Laura - I think you'd have to be prepared for most people's reactions to Socorro to be 'huh?' The only reason I've heard of it is because of our discussion a few weeks back. I like the meaning, but it's a very bold choice!

By EVie
March 4, 2010 6:53 AM

Becky - I've never met a real Lorelei, but it was one of my favorite names as a tween/young teen (yes, I was a total NE back then too). I loved the romantic sound and also the seductive mythological meaning. I have to say that the Gilmore Girls spelling Lorelai is one of the the most irritating kreative spellings to me, though - it's a German word and German has very precise phonetics and they don't need to be tampered with! ( I find Leisel similarly irritating - when two vowels go a-walking, the second one does the talking, so it's Liesel). And now a whole generation of girls probably think that Lorelai is the correct spelling. Do you think the network had a whole team of executives sitting around the board table saying, "well, I'm not sure the pronunciation of Lorelei is clear, so maybe if we change it to Lorelai it will be more obvious to the average viewer how it is pronounced"? And yet it is a TV show... we hear how it is pronounced... way to miss an opportunity to educate the public.

Sorry for the brief rant :) Running off to catch a flight now, hence the early posting...

March 4, 2010 7:10 AM

Socorro seems bizarre to me. It's what you scream when you need help. To my ears it would be like naming my kid 'SOS'--just weird. Do people actually use this as a name?

March 4, 2010 9:16 AM

While Socorro is used rarely here I obviously don't think it's weird. In the past Socorro was even used here in America where it was in the top 1000 from 1919 to 1952. It honors Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Of course I can see the appeal of Dolores as well which honors Our Lady of Sorrows.

The feedback is helpful though maybe I'll put Socorro in a potential mn slot.