Biblical Style, Without the Bible?

Aug 9th 2012

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.


August 9, 2012 1:20 PM

It's true that this style is very popular right now. Also, there are many newer girl names with the iah ending:



etc. I feel like these names are parents chaneling the Josiah feel but for a girl.

August 9, 2012 1:35 PM

I'm always struck by the -ah ending for boys.  I like them a great deal.  I love Josiah, Noah, Micah and others.


What I find strange is when I think about them - they sound very feminine because of the "A" sound at the end.  It is like Olivia, Victoria etc.  I would think (incorrectly!) that this would turn off parents.

August 9, 2012 1:42 PM

Nadya Suleman certainly followed this trend when she named her 14 children:

Elijah Makai

Amerah Yasmeen

Joshua Jacob "JJ"


twins Caleb Kai and Calyssa Arielle

and the octuplets:

Noah Angel

Maliyah Angel

Isaiah Angel

Nariyah Angel

Jonah Angel

Josiah Angel

Jeremiah Angel

Makai Angel

August 9, 2012 6:23 PM

I quite like the male biblical names ending with -ah but I have noticed them being adopted as female names. One family I know with all girls has used all male biblical names. I suppose it might be one omy those future trends. 

Talking about unpopular biblical names, my husband is pretty set on using Jezebel for a potential daughter. I'm not a fan due to the negative connotations 

August 12, 2012 5:36 PM

@Laura: Love the post!

@Fruity: Jezebel is a great blog. I wonder if it will change connotations of the name... not sure the blog is *that* well known...

August 13, 2012 5:58 AM

Plenty of Biblical names in the 2011 top names of England and Wales, just released by the UK Office of National Statistics.

It was interesting to note the popularity of Elijah- we've always had many Thomases, Jameses, Peters, Pauls, etc., but some of the O.T. names have been more popular in the States generally. For example, Ethan. I only came across that name after I came to the States. Ditto Caleb, Ezra, Abraham...

Lots of other interesting aspects to note- Harry and Amelia are the most popular names for boys and girls. Harry I might have guessed, but Amelia! I have actually never met one.

I was also interested to see that Jackson has entered the top 100. A friend of mine named her son that just last month (brother to India and Lola).

August 14, 2012 2:45 PM

My husband and I have always been attracted to names that end in the "ah" sound. Consequently our kids are Isaiah, Melora, Clara, and Judah. Funnily enough, a neighbor recently commented on how all our kids have "Biblical" names, which made us laugh since Melora and Clara are nowhere to be found in the bible. I guess they might all have Biblical style, though.

August 14, 2012 6:43 PM

The popularity of Old Testament names in the UK these days is interesting. I remember my mom telling me that Brits were kind of scandalized by the use of OT names among non-Jews in the US--her implication being Brits tended to be a little anti-Semitic. Of course I take that with a grain of salt.

August 15, 2012 9:02 AM

I wonder how much of the biblical/biblicized name trend is attributable to women seeking masculinity in names for boys.  It seems like biblical names would be more resistant to androgeny (although Fruity's comment goes against that) so perhaps people feel more certain that the name won't be feminized.  

August 15, 2012 1:58 PM

Wow, dorit, I never knew that. Unfortunately, I can believe it- certainly pre-Second World War, anyway. The situation's very different now.

August 15, 2012 3:09 PM

Hi, if I may butt in in about Old Testament names in the UK - I'm not sure if it was a case of anti-semitism.  Rather, Old Testament names were strongly associated with Puritanism, and I think were also not considered as elegant as the "classic" European forms favoured by royalty (Puritanism was less popular among the upper classes).

That said, there's Old Testament and there's Old Testament.  Simpler names like Aaron, Adam, Daniel and Joshua have been in widespread use for decades now (my rough impression is that their use declined in the 19th century, before coming back in the mid-to-late-20th century once the early 20th century medieval and aristocratic surname inspired names were old hat).  Others, like Reuben and Elijah, are currently in fashion.   

But something like Jeremiah (as opposed to Jeremy), or Obadiah, is still going to be considered a little eccentric, I think.  Perhaps eccentic-in-a-good-way, or hmm-interesting-that-sounds-cool, but it's not a familiar standard.

Also, some names, like Abraham, might have been considered a "Jewish name" to the extent where non-Jewish people would have felt weird about using them (the Jewish population in the UK is much smaller than in the US); this doesn't necessarily imply anti-semitism.  Nowadays, for example, I wouldn't use Mohammed, even if I really liked the sound, because it's so clearly associated with a culture/religion which I'm not part of and it would seem wrong of me to do so.  

I will end my essay by noting that a completely non-Jewish, 100% English acquaintance of mine has named her son Cohen... I think the OC was a factor!  So I guess the naming landscape really has changed...

p.s. I just realised, Valerie, that you are British yourself, so apologies for telling you about the "naming landscape" which you must be pretty familar with!

August 16, 2012 9:45 AM

I think a couple of years or so ago Laura Wattenberg did a post about "Old Testament" vs. "European-style" names and how that's been one of the traditional markers of American vs. British style. OT names were quite common in the early American years (first settlement up to around the time of the Civil War), fell off due to increasing Jewish immigration and being more associated with them*, and have been gradually revived over the past 50 years or so.

*An interesting case of this is Rachel on Mad Men; since the character is Jewish the name is not as farfetched (considering her generation) as it would've been for a gentile born at the time.

Of course we're now seeing plenty of crossover both ways, as mentioned in the BBC article. In America the Euro-style has already caught on for girls (e.g. Isabella, Olivia, Sophia) and is slowly but surely rising for boys (as we see more of names like Oliver and Sebastian).

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