Cultural Appropriation of Names?

This is kind of a more serious topic, but I think it's important and would like to know other name enthusiasts' thoughts on it. Where do you draw the line between acceptable use of a name and inappropiate use?

I'm thinking in terms of names that come from a certain culture/religion and may have a significance within that culture but are taken and used by cultural outsiders. Do you think there is even a clear line between a-okay and no-go for names?

I know I've seen references on here to the use of the Jewish surname Cohen being inappropriately (and offensively) used as a given name. Are there other Jewish/Hebrew names you've seen or heard used inappropriately? What about names from other cultures and religions?

Also, being Native American myself, I can't help but grimace and groan whenever I see a name listed on a baby name site or in a naming book that is said to be of "Native American" origin, usually with some stereotypical meaning ascribed to it, too, like "Soaring Falcon" for a boys' name or "Graceful Deer" for a girls' name. There's a lot wrong with this, but here's just a couple problems I have with it. First of all, there are hundreds of indigenous peoples and languages of the Americas, so there aren't any names that are generically of "Native American" origin. Secondly, in many Native cultures, names, name meanings, and/or naming practices are incredibly important. Traditionally, names are not something taken lightly or just chosen because it "sounds cool" or "has such a pretty meaning." Specific naming practices and the significance of names depend on each specific Native culture, of course, but in many it's very important.

So what are y'all's thoughts? Any specific examples? How do you deal with this if you come across it in real life? For example, how would you react if you met a boy (or man) named Cohen? Or expectant parents considering the name Aiyana for a little girl and claiming it means "forever flowering" in Cherokee. (It doesn't.) I'd love to hear what people have to say on the matter!


June 7, 2016 3:17 AM

I think it can be a blurry line between appreciation and appropriation sometimes. To me, one key difference at least between the least ambiguous examples is knowledge of the culture. If you're immersed enough in the culture that you're naming from enough to be aware of what is/isn't appropriate within that culture, then you can probably follow the rules enough to avoid offending people at least to the same extent as do the examples you give (Cohen as a given name, generic and wrongly attributed "Native American" names). I do know many people who have named outside their own culture (e.g. a couple who gave their daughter a masculine Tibetan name) and as an outsider I often really don't feel very qualified to decide where on the appreciation/appropriation spectrum they fall.

The one that I have encountered that really blows my mind is the use of Gypsy as a given name. Knowing that many Romani people regard the use of the term as a racial epithet wholeheartedly makes me find the name inappropriate in a cringeworthy way, yet 26 girls were given the name last year.

I do know that if I meet a boy or man named Cohen, or a girl named Aiyana who claims it means "forever flowering" in Cherokee or a girl named Gypsy, I try my very best to avoid judging those individuals by their names. (This is also the case for terrible names that are terrible for reasons other than cultural appropriation. I am a teacher and try very hard not to judge the hapless bearers of occasional really terrible names I encounter on my roster.) After all, the bearers of the name usually didn't choose them. It would be hard to avoid judging their PARENTS, whom I happily never meet since my students are adults. I suppose by the time they're grown-up they could choose other names to go by, but I think that's often hard given how much names become part of our identity.


June 7, 2016 3:19 PM

Wow! I haven't heard Gypsy as a given name before and am bewildered that people could be so ignorant as to choose a racial slur as a baby name! I've only heard Gyspsy used as a stage name by old vaudeville performers and such. Not that it's acceptable as a stage name either, and actually, come to think of it, I may have assumed it was a stage name...

I do think knowledge of the culture can make the difference between people choosing an appropriate name that still shows their admiration for a particular culture while also being respectful and choosing a name out of context that is offensive or inappropriate. For instance, I very much doubt that any parent who chose the name Gypsy has any real knowledge of Romani culture, or any parent who chooses Cohen has any knowledge of Jewish cultural and religious practices, etc.

Unfortunately, it seems many people don't care to learn what is respectful and what is offensive. It actually seems odd to me that parents would care to choose a name from another culture but not care to make sure their choice is appropriate. If they're really choosing the name because they appreciate or admire that culture, then shouldn't they care about being respectful?

As far as the couple who chose a masculine Tibetan name for their daughter, I don't know enough about Tibetan names and naming customs to know if it's an inappropriate choice or is completely fine and respectful. If anyone else on here does know, I'd love to hear about it.

I understand it's not the "fault," so to speak, of the people with these names, but I do wonder about their parents! I would hope some of them eventually learn about their names and at least choose to go by a nickname or middle name, as a sort of compromise between changing their name entiirely and continuing to use a name that others see as cultural appropriation.

By mk
June 7, 2016 5:28 PM

Gypsy Rose Lee was her stage name, and the reason she gave would change whenever she was asked (she liked to tell stories). But that era is not known for being culturally sensitive.

In basic general terms, I think it is fine to use names from other cultures. In the U.S we are so diverse and have many people of mixed heritage that we cannot assume we know the cultural background of a person. Plus, people could be choosing to honor a best friend, etc.

Of course, this doesn't fit your examples and other names that are actually offensive. It is best to do more research on the names one doens't know much about, rather than rely on a random website for meaning. For example, I looked up Aiyana and it is also listed as a variant spelling for the African name Ayanna. So right there you have two different versions, depending on where you look.

June 7, 2016 7:27 PM

Oh, I was thinking of Gypsy Abbott, but you're right of course that the era of Gypsy Rose Lee and Gypsy Abbott is certainly not one known for its cultural awareness or sensitivity! I still don't think that makes it right, though. Just because something was common during a certain time period does not condone the practice.

I agree that one cannot and should not make assumptions about another's cultural heritage, but I was thinking of people who purposefully choose a name from a culture that is not their own. Reasons can differ for this decision, of course, and if parents choose a name to honor a friend of a different cultural background, I should think the parents would have an understanding of whether or not it would be proper for them to do so.

Unfortunately, I think many parents do choose names from name books and websites that aren't credible, leading to situations like this. It's interesting to note that wherever you saw Aiyana listed as a variant of Ayanna, it's listed as generically "African," which is analogous to listing a name as generically "Native American." There are thousands of distinct ethnic groups and languages on the African continent, so one would think something more specific than "African" would be listed as the origin if the name did in fact originate somewhere in Africa. Did it give a meaning for either spelling? I'm curious if this source offered a similar meaning to the one I saw or if it was entirely different.

June 7, 2016 7:52 PM

The bottom line here is that almost without exception the baby name online sites (and the booklets that used to be sold next to the cashier at the supermarket) are terrible.  Most of the entries are utter made-up nonsense, and the nonsense is copied from one site to another.  To get something like accurate information about the origin and usage of a name takes real research.  The only general name site I can recommend is behindthename.  That does a good job on the languages I know, but I can't vouch for the languages I don't know.  I really only know Indo-European languages and Semitic languages (primarily Hebrew), so I can't personally say that what the site says about, say, Japanese or Yoruba is correct.  Even specialized sites which should be better fudge around.  Take Caleb, for example.  Caleb/Kelev is the Hebrew word for dog. plain and simple.  The Hebrew name sites presented under Jewish auspisces (and the Jewish auspices are generally those that try to convert non-observant Jews into observant ones and have an agenda) often don't say a word about dog, but derive the name from from kol-(all, whole) and -lev (heart).  The peoples of the Middle East, both Jews and Arabs, have a culltural antipathy toward dogs (check out the references to dogs in a biblical concordance), so the Jewish name sites refuse to admit to the possibility, nay, likelihood, that the name Caleb derives from the word for dog.

Point being: people should take name sites with a HUGE boulder of salt.

June 8, 2016 6:52 PM

Hear, hear! Definitely agree that most everything on general name sites is total rubbish when it comes to the meanings and origins of names. The problem is they still do harm by spreading misinformation. Not always serious harm, like spreading the use of Cohen is. it may just be a kid growing up being told their name means one thing and later learning the real meaning. Hopefully, the kid doesn't have an identity crisis over it, but it could still be upsetting to find out. That actually happened to one of my cousins.

If anybody is looking for a more reliable source for name etymologies, the Oxford Dictionary of First Names is reliable (as far as I know). To view the full entry for each name, one needs either the print copy or a subscription to Oxford Reference's website. The beginning of each entry can be viewed without a subscription, though.

I'm disappointed to learn that the "official" Hebrew name site isn't more reliable. It's a shame that even more legitimate sources aren't completely accurate!

June 14, 2016 9:13 PM

Like Withycombe's Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, I believe the newer ...First Names book is reliable for English names, but not so much for foreign-language ones. However, I don't have a subscription and don't own the book, so I might be wrong. (The newer book certainly lists a lot more foreign names.)

June 16, 2016 2:48 PM

I mentioned the one currently in print just because it's easier to access, either online or buying a copy. With the little bits and pieces one can view online without a subscription, it is hard to judge the accuracy of it, though. The names I've checked seem to have correct information, but again I can't see the full entry, so I'm not sure.

June 14, 2016 12:53 PM

A propos of Laura's recent post about Brooklyn and our discussion of Cohen, I thought about posting this as a response to her post, but realized it belonged here:


I'm not finding the Name Mapper function on the website right now, but I would assume that most of people naming their daughters Brooklyn are from the South or Plain and Mountain states, not from my fair borough.

It strikes me that I find the use of "Brooklyn" by people who are likely ignorant of NYC and quite possibly racist and anti-Semitic (Brooklyn having huge Afro-Caribbean and Hassidic populations despite its recent mostly white hipsterization, which I assume is the reputation the name is pointing to) strikes me as offensive in a similar way, although much less pointedly, as the use of "Cohen" as a first name.

June 14, 2016 1:20 PM

I'm not sure I understand what you are driving at.  Is it that naming a child who lives on the Great Plains Brooklyn is offensive to Brooklynites, the name of whose borough is being taken in vain?  Or is it a matter of Brooklynites rolling their eyes at presumed bigots in the sticks who have ignorantly/unwittingly given their child a name which connotes everything these resumed bigots abhor?

In the case of Cohen, it is a matter of people who were born to the priestly title being offended by people who dare to use that sacred title to name children who have no connection to it.  I am not sure I see a parallel to people naming a child Brooklyn when they have no connection to or understanding of the place.  Brooklyn is, after all, just a place name of ultimately Dutch origin.

June 15, 2016 9:37 AM

I think I didn't explain myself well. I was trying to describe how the use of Brooklyn and Cohen by people who are potentially anti-Semitic and/or racist strikes me as cultural appropriation. I was trying to articulate how the use of the names feels to *me*. Writing from NYC as a non-religious person of Ashkenazi ancestry with experience being the subject of anti-Semitism and witness to racism in the South, I tend find the use of Cohen as a given name by people who are ignorant of Jewish tradition and/or actively anti-Semitic ironic and offensive, although can also be persuaded that it's just an unfortunate case of a homograph, with a creative and infelicitous spelling of Cowan coinciding with the transliteration of כֹּהֵן, .

The use of Brooklyn by people who are potentially anti-Semitic and/or racist is similarly, but also differenlty, offensive to me. It's like a vague echo of the same offensivness--to me, it contributes to that my culture is ripe for appropriation, while at the same time subject to bigotry. 

I would guess that most people naming their daughters Brooklyn are not referencing the Dutch place name. Instead, I assume that they're pointing to two cultural referents: 1. the hipness of the borough in recent years, a sort of hipsterish cool, and 2. the girls' names Brooke and Lyn. So it's a coincidence of a place name and a compound name. Very felicitous.

I would also guess that the use of the name is higher farther away from NYC, in places where ignorance and or anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans are highest. 


If I'm correct, then it's people who don't like the actual people of Brooklyn because of their ethnic background using the moniker because they want to borrow the mellifluous sound and the air of hipness. Which feels to me like cultural appropriation. Not on the same order as Cohen at all, and not the same in the specifics at all, but they both give me the same heebie jeebies. 

So, yes, this is what I was trying to get at:

"Or is it a matter of Brooklynites rolling their eyes at presumed bigots in the sticks who have ignorantly/unwittingly given their child a name which connotes everything these resumed bigots abhor?"

June 15, 2016 10:13 AM

OK, now I see what you were getting at.  

June 15, 2016 4:43 PM

I have no affection whatsoever for the name Brooklyn, which strikes me as distinctly un-namelike (like naming your son Fresno, or your daughter Pasadena, to put it in "California" terms).  However, I find this discussion of it somewhat unsettling.  I just don't see the connection to racism/anti-Semitism.  It seems to imply that because someone lives far away from the borough of Brooklyn, or New York City in general, they are highly likely to be racist and anti-Semitic.  I would actually predict that if people are trying to capture the "hip" vibe of Brooklyn are unlikely to be particularly racist or anti-Semitic.

I can agree that ignorance bothers me: I live in the San Joaquin Valley, and if someone from far away named their child something like "Stockton" (for a distinguished, surnamey feeling) or "Visalia" (with its euphonious, feminine "l" and "s" sound) I would probably laugh and wonder if they had ever been to those places.  But somehow the inclusion of "and they're probably racist and anti-Semitic, too" bothers me.  Some may be, but I don't think there's any real reason to suspect they are.

I hope this doesn't come across as angry or offensive...I just feel slightly defensive of people in areas like mine.  Most of the type of people I know who might name their child "Brooklyn" are not remotely racist or anti-Semitic, though they probably are ignorant about New York City.  I get the annoyance at the ignorance, but I don't really agree with the leap of logic to racism and anti-Semitism.

June 15, 2016 5:01 PM

I’ve contemplated how to reply to this for a while because I have some major problems with your argument here…

First, you need to look at the data. All I see is presumptions. You presume the name is more common outside of the Northeast U.S. You presume people using it are more likely to be racist and/or anti-Semitic based on their home region. You even presume these people don’t know anything about NYC. Your entire argument is based on presumptions.

Here’s the state-by-state use of Brooklyn as a given name in 2015 via the SSA data. I only included the spelling Brooklyn since it’s the spelling of the NYC borough. It’s sorted by most occurrences to least. Unless otherwise specified, the numbers are all for baby girls. 

CA- 644 F and 13 M; TX- 594; MI- 294; OH- 287; IL- 278; FL- 273; GA- 237; NC- 198 F and 6 M; PA- 198; MO- 179; TN- 178; IN- 177; MN- 141; LA- 134; WI- 134; AL- 133; WA- 132; VA- 130; UT- 125; NY- 123; MS- 118; CO- 115; AZ- 110; OK- 105; MD- 98; KY- 97; SC- 91; OR- 88; NJ- 87; AR- 84; KS- 71; IA- 70; MA- 68; ID- 52; WV- 51; NV- 47; CT- 40; NE- 36; SD- 30; NM- 25; ND- 23; AK- 22; DE- 21; MT- 19; NH- 19; DC- 18; HI- 18; ME- 17; RI- 17; WY- 17; VT- 5 

As you can see, the use of Brooklyn is widespread. No clear regional pattern emerges. The name is used the most in California and Texas, two states that are very different politically, culturally, historically, demographically, etc. It’s used the least in Vermont and Wyoming, which again are very different states. New York falls near the middle, but on the higher end at #20 out of 51. Virginia and Utah flank New York on the higher side, followed by Mississippi and Colorado on the lower side. The only two states where the name shows up in the data for boys, indicating no more than 4 boys named Brooklyn were born in any other U.S. states last year, are California and North Carolina. It would be hard to find two states that are more different than those two.

Therefore, the data proves your first assumption, that the majority of “people naming their daughters Brooklyn are from the South or Plain and Mountain states,” wrong. Your “guess that the use of the name is higher farther away from NYC, in places where ignorance and or anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans are highest,” is incorrect and brings me to my second point.

I actually found your presumptions that people beyond your “fair borough” are more likely to be ignorant, racist, and/or anti-Semitic offensive. To assume that individuals are ignorant, racist, and/or anti-Semitic on the basis of where they live is not only misinformed, but rather preposterous and, honestly, offensive. I’ve lived in the South my entire life. This does not make me ignorant or racist any more than someone who has lived in NYC for his/her entire life is somehow immune to ignorance and racism. Racism, ignorance, and anti-Semitism all exist north of the Mason-Dixon line as well. If you want proof, just take a look at native New Yorker Donald Trump, who routinely spews bigoted and hateful comments about people different than himself, including Jews.

My last point is a minor one. It can’t be proven with the limits of the SSA data, but I don’t think most parents choosing the name Brooklyn are referencing the borough’s hipsters. If you think they don’t know about NYC enough to know about the Afro-Caribbean and Hassidic population, why would they know Brooklyn has recently been “hipsterized,” to use your terminology? I think it’s being used more by parents trying to find this weird balance between “modern and cool” and “classic and feminine.” I don’t think the point is how they are intending the name anyway. Whether parents think of it as a compound name formed from Brooke and Lynn, a reference to a borough of NYC, or some trendy take on the -lyn suffix for girls’ names, it’s ultimately still a place name of Dutch origin meaning “broken land.”

June 15, 2016 5:31 PM

This is what I was getting at, as well.  I find the presumption that people outside New York are highly likely to be racist and anti-Semitic very odd, to say the least.

June 15, 2016 9:12 PM

Sorry I didn't see your reply until after posting mine. (I've been noticing this weird delay lately...) Anyway, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks it's a pretty far-fetched jump between "not from NYC" and "must be racist/anti-Semitic."

ETA: Oh, and I don't like the name Brooklyn either, but then I don't generally like place names. I just don't see the connection between its use as a name and anti-Semitism.

June 7, 2016 10:08 AM

As with most issues of cultural appropriation, I think it has much to do with the power balance between the culture of the people doing the naming and the group from which the name comes.

This is especially strong with the Native American examples you mention. The fact that the name meanings are often wrong is not really the issue (people are always quoting wrong or uncertain name meanings for all kinds of names on here, not just Native ones); the problem is that people coming from a culture which has by and large "won" in America is taking names, with no context, from a group that have largely been on the losing side of colonial history, many of whom are still suffering its consequences of it. It is, to say the least, insensitive.

I personally don't see it so clearly with Cohen, but it's been pointed out enough times on here that it's offensive that I'll take those people's words for it.

I can't believe too many people would find it cultural appropriation to use a Finnish or Japanese name if you're not from those cultures, although they might find it discordant. I do always find it slightly dubious, however, when parents are pulling from African/Asian cultures names that always seem to be associated with meditation/happy living... but I don't necessarily know enough about those cultures to judge if it's offensive.

June 7, 2016 11:42 AM

Once again Cohen is NOT a name.  It is an hereditary priestly title.  A man is a cohen (or actually, the Cohen).  My father who was a cohen was properly designated as Eliyahu (Elijah) ben (son of) Shlomo Chaim ben Yitzchak Moshe ha-Kohen (the priest) Surname.  So, name plus patronym plus patronym plus title plus surname.  Cohen took on the appearance/function of a surname when Jews in the Austro-Hungarian and Czarist Empires were forced starting in 1798 to take surnames for the first time in their thousands of years of history.  A bureaucrat would ask a Jew his name and would be told something like Moshe ben Dovid ha-Kohen and would in his ignorance assume that Kohen was a surname and write it down as such in the official records.  This misunderstanding not withstanding, Cohen remains an hereditary title, and its use by someone not entitled to it is (grossly) inappropriate.  The closest analogy I can think of is someone deciding to name their kid Dalai Lama because it has all those fashionably liquid sounds.  Just no.

As for the larger question, I don't see anything inherently wrong with giving a child a name from a culture not one's own but which one admires.  However, unless the parent has studied that culture extensively and knows what's what, it's best to ask someone who is part of that culture whether the name would be appropriate for use by someone outside the culture.  So, for example, if it is a Lakota name, ask a Lakota elder.  If all the parent knows is that the name is "Native American" according to some random online name site and doesn't even know what particular language it comes from and therefore whom to consult, I would say let it alone.

June 7, 2016 4:52 PM

Thanks for such a detailed explanation of the meaning and history of Cohen!! I was only familiar with it as a surname that derived from the hereditary title. (Well, that and seeing comments on this site about how inappropriate it is to use as a given name...) It's really interesting, though not really surprising, how it actually came into use as a surname.

I agree there's nothing wrong at all with choosing a name from another culture, just as long as it's done with respect for the culture's traditions and is actually from that culture (e.g. not something like the faux-Cherokee Aiyana, lol). I wish people did make the effort to ensure they're being respectful by asking someone from the culture, but, unfortunately, they don't and we get little baby Cohens and Gypsys and Who-knows-what-elses...

June 8, 2016 1:53 AM

I agree that the method of asking a member of the culture seems prudent. This website and offers a service of helping people find Native American names that were not-bogus and not-offensive, for a small fee being donated to a worthy cause. I was so pleased to stumble across the site because Native American groups seem particularly saddled with a cultural fetishization and corresponding name enthusiasm run amok. The name service is effectively a chance to consult a person from that culture over the internet, if you don't actually know anyone from said culture (and sadly, with many Native languages on the verge of extinction, that's sometimes difficult to come by). I was particularly tickled that the default form suggests that you might be naming a house or a boat or a RPG character, as well as a pet. Yes, one might be, if one is a name enthusiast!

June 8, 2016 3:17 PM

I find this issue of "Cohen" as a first name fascinating.  I have never met anyone who named their child this, so I lack some context regarding the people who are using this name.  Is there a particular region or ethnicity or socio-economic status that tends to use this name?

I am also intrigued by the "offensiveness" of it.  Not being Jewish, I lack the context to understand the visceral reaction some people seem to have to it.  To me it sounds quite ignorant, but not offensive.  It seems similar to names like "Bishop" or "Deacon" or "King": these are all titles, and I think come across as ignorant and arrogant.  What is it about that title in particular, though, that makes it so grossly inappropriate?  I'm not remotely defending the name, and I think that people who are inclined to use it should consider the feelings of members of the name's culture of origin, but I'm just having some trouble "getting" the offensiveness aspect.

June 8, 2016 4:28 PM

Cohen is an hereditary priestly title going back thousands of years, and the people who bear it still perform the functions of priests.  While the original function of animal sacrifice died with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, modern Kohanim still perform other priestly functions such as the redemption of the first-born, giving special blessings, and so forth.  In addition Kohanim are subject to specific restrictions, for example, on whom they may marry and on contact with dead bodies and cemeteries.  A man is born a Kohen, and that means he is an active priest.  My father was a Kohen.  He was not observant (although we did keep a kosher home out of respect for the grandparents), he never went to synagogue, and I suspect he was an atheist or at least an agnostic although he never said.  Nevertheless he did perform the duties of a kohen and observe the restrictions, proud of following a priestly tradition that presumably goes back well more than three thousand years.  Random people who are ignorant of the meaning of the title and who give it to their random sons who are not heir to a living tradition of thousands of years and who are not entitled to function as priests turn my stomach.

As I said before, don't name your kid Dalai Lama because he isn't, and don't name your kid Cohen because he isn't.

June 8, 2016 6:52 PM

I don't personally know anyone who has named their child Cohen either, but I took a look at the 2015 SSA name data. There were a total of 1,014 boys and 12 girls born in the U.S. in 2015 named Cohen.

Here's the breakdown by state:

TX- 80, OH- 62, LA- 57, IN- 56, GA- 53, UT- 49, NC- 41, CA- 40, MO- 34, AL- 30, IL- 29, TN- 29, FL- 26, PA- 26, KY- 25, WA- 25, MN- 24, IA- 23, VA- 22, OR- 21, SC- 21, KS- 20, MI- 20, NE- 17, OK- 17, AR- 16, AZ- 14, WI- 14, MD- 12, MS- 12, ID- 11, NY- 11, CO- 10, WV- 9, ND- 8, ME- 7, NV- 6, MA- 5, NH- 5, SD- 5

AK, CT, DC, DE, HI, MT, NJ, NM, RI, VT, and WY- 4 or less

June 9, 2016 10:23 AM

To gain some insight into why some people are naming their children Cohen, it's helpful to just check out the Babynamewizard entry on the name. One person who named her son Cohen describes why:

"We just named our 4th boy Cohen. I'm a labor and delivery nurse, which makes it sometimes hard when it comes to naming a baby, especially when we've already used so many good boy names! We were thinking of "Owen" this last time around, but it was just getting too popular for my liking. As we were considering it, someone asked us what we thought we might name it if it were a boy, told them "Owen", and they thought we said "Cohen". We loved it so much, and I hadn't heard of it being used in my experiences at the hospital as a baby name, so we went with that! We love it!"

Another person mentions a pop-cultural source of the name that might be contributing to the last name to first name crossover:

"on the Oc, the main characters family name is Cohen. Their teenage son, his friends called him Cohen."

I tend to think of it as an alternative spelling of Cowan that, combined with the popularity of lastnames-as-first names and the name Owen, (and perhaps the OC character is added influence) has taken off in an unfortunate way. 



February 22, 2018 12:28 PM

I think it just fits in with current fashionable sounds...a couple years ago my kid was on a baseball team of less than a dozen boys with a Kohen, a Kyan, a Kevin, and a Colin.

June 7, 2016 4:19 PM

I'm glad you brought up the role that balance of power plays in it. I don't like to use the terms "won" and "lost or "winners" and "losers" necessarily, but I think that non-Native folks don't seem to grasp the connection between mainstream American culture appropriating and stereotyping indigenous cultures right and left and the settler-colonial society in which we live. What's more, I think most people don't recognize these things as problematic. (I'm speaking generally here. I know that there are non-indigenous people who recognize these issues and the complexity of them, but the overall population doesn't.)

As far as the name meanings being inaccurate, I think I was unclear in my first post. Often these names are not Native at all but are listed as such in naming books. The example I gave (Aiyana) is not a Cherokee name. It has no meaning in Cherokee that I'm aware of, but I've seen it listed as Cherokee for "forever flowering" in name books. I suppose that isn't so much a matter of misappropriation as misrepresentation, but I still find it really aggravating. Other times the word does come from a Native American language, but it's not a name and should not be used as a name by someone with no knowledge of its cultural context. The worst example I can think of from the top of my head is Kachina. I have seen this listed on name sites as a "Native American" (no specific tribe listed) girls' name meaning "Spirit." Kachina is not a name, but it does have a Native source. A brief explanation- Kachina dolls (or more correctly, katsina) are figures carved by the Hopi people, traditionally from cottonwood root. They represent certain spirit beings of the Hopi spiritual tradition. They are called dolls and are given to young girls, but they're not toys. It would be offensive to use Kachina as a name, especially with no knowledge of its place in Hopi life or religion.

I think it's best if parents are going to choose a name from another culture to at least try to learn about the name and the culture in question and get an idea of whether or not it's appropriate. Ideally, they would reach out to someone within that culture who is a respected member of their community and ask advice. I know that isn't necessarily feasible in every case, though.

June 8, 2016 2:38 AM

One of my spouse's cousins named their daughter a very unusual spelling variant of Maria. I thought, hey, okay, they liked creative spelling, but when they told us about the name they proudly told me that it was the "German form of Maria" they found in a name book. This was news to me, because I am actually German and my German mother's name is... Maria. I am pretty sure what happened is the parents were getting confused between the name entry and the pronunciation guide, and ended up using the pronunciation guide spelling as the spelling of the name. Which is fine: I practiced my varsity-level smile and nod and comment flatteringly about the baby's fine attributes and how Maria is a name I don't hear very much these days, and then had a good laugh about it with the Spouse when we got home. However, it's not offensive to me. Just wrong, and also funny. 

I can see how in a case where the power dynamics are different between the cultures involved, how it could very quickly become more problematic, though. That's especially true if this kind of mixup happens all the time, and people are very regularly taking random constructed names and claiming they are Cherokee for something glamorous and poetic, and the misinformation gets actively spread by name books, rather than originating from people's inability to correctly read the legend of a baby name book.

Anyway, all of that is to say that I agree with the point that the power balance between cultures involved plays a big role, too.

June 7, 2016 8:24 PM

What are your thoughts on language versus culture? Are all names from a different language automatically from a different culture? Or rather, are all names from a different language cultural appropriation or is there a difference between using a name from a language other than your own and using one from a different culture? If the name doesn't have cultural associations that run deeper than simply being a word used to name people, is there ever a problem? Yes, it may signal that the person has a background that he or she does not, but I don't know...

I can't imagine that every parent naming a non-Greek daughter Penelope is guilty of cultural appropriation. I've met non-Jewish people with Hebrew (non-biblical) names, and all although it was highly surprising, I certainly wasn't offended. But Hebrew is language, and the name has no cultural significance beyond the language. Tons of people with no Irish roots use Irish names. Likewise Germanic names. Does it matter how old the culture is? How long the name has been in general use?  

And there are also names from the same language but from a different culture. 

June 7, 2016 10:15 PM

I think that language and culture are very closely related but are not synonymous.

I don't think using a name from another language is cultural appropriation in most cases. If the name is just a name, as in there's no other cultural significance to the name, I think it's fine for anyone to use it. I still think it would be best to seek advice from someone within that culture if there's any doubt, though, because some cultures have very specific naming practices.

If the name is in general use it likely doesn't have any significance beyond being a name, so i don't think there would be a problem using it.

Furthermore, one person can belong to more than one culture. For instance, if there is an English-speaking Filipino-American Christian who is an expectant mother, it would not be cultural appropriation for her to choose a biblical name even though that name is not English or Filipino linguistically. The name would still be part of her culture, just religous culture not ethnic culture.

June 7, 2016 10:41 PM

Right,  so that's why I specified that the Hebrew name in question was non-biblical, since Hebrew biblical names are relevant for Christians, too. Though I'll admit that I do find it a bit funny how certain "New Testament" names are popular among Jews, since the relevance doesn't work both ways. 

June 8, 2016 12:37 AM

Most of the "New Testament" names are Hebrew names in Greek form, Luke being a significant exception.  In that time and place Greek was the civil language, and many Jews would be conversant in it, as well as in Aramaic.  I don't think it's particularly strange for an American Jew whose Hebrew name is Ya'akov to use James in civil life.  That's precisely what our ancestors did in the Hellenistic world.

I do take notice when a non-Jew uses a Hebrew name, although I don't think there is anything wrong with it.  For example, I have run across non-Jews named Shoshana instead of Susan(nah).  In fact, the first person I encountered (about 60 some years ago) named Shira was not Jewish.

June 8, 2016 1:01 PM

I understand their origin, just think that with the whole pool of names out there, it's noteworthy to choose a name that is strongly attached to someone who has great significance to others. Since *not* following the "New Testament" is a rather prominent aspect of Jewish identity, I think that the association with an apostle takes precedence over the name's original Hebrew origin, but that could just be me. Obviously many, many people don't feel that way. I thinking more along the lines of Matthew than James. But again, this may be just me. 

Shoshanah seems to be a popular one -- I once met a black woman with that name. I, of course asked her about it,  and she had no idea that it was Hebrew. I met a Yael with no ties to Judaism, too.

June 8, 2016 1:43 PM

So the kid's name is Matisyahu.  What are you going to give him for a name to use in, say, public school?  The English versions of the Hanukkah story generally use Mattathias, so why would just plain Matthew be off the table?  I have heard a Jewish man introduce himself as a "Jewish Jon," meaning that his name was Jonathan (Yonasan), but Yohanan is just as Jewish a name, and in English that's John.  As for the feminine names in the Greek scriptures, well, Miriam (Mary) is the winner in popularity, and Mary was used as an English name in the my mother's circle of friends.  Or take Elisheva/Elizabeth.  My nextdoor neighbor in my college dorm was an Elizabeth, and her father was a rabbi.  Oddly she and I had the same highly unusual surname, and that caused no end of confusion.  Or Anna/Ann(a)/Chana, Greek scriptures notwithstanding, a whole lot of Jewish Chanas went by Anna/Anne/Ann back in the day including my own aunt.  Then around the time my son was born, Hannah became the fashionable form of the name for both Jews and non-Jews.  So personally I don't see a problem with the Greek form of Hebrew names in the Greek Scriptures.  Perhaps I feel a little differently about Peter and Paul, since Peter's name was really Shimon and Paul's Shaul.  Thus, Peter and Paul are not Greek forms of Hebrew names, but entirely different names altogether.  OTOH I knew a lot of Jewish Marks, so why is Mark so much more acceptable in some eyes than Matthew and John.  Luke I would leave out of it, since Luke was not a Jew in the first place, and Luke is a Greek name.

Shoshanna does seem to have some traction in the African-American community.  That's where I have encountered it too.

June 8, 2016 10:33 PM

Thanks for that perspective. It never hit me like that but I can now appreciate that point of view. 

June 8, 2016 6:36 PM

I agree that "cultural appropriation" in the sense that I think is meant here requires an imbalance of power. One of the privileges of power is naming (see the Kunta Kinte/Toby scene in Roots, or consider the difference in significance of the terms Brit and Jap to a British American and Japanese American, respectively).

When an individual or culture is oppressed, one of the most basic ways of resisting oppression is through naming. There might be "secret" personal names that aren't used in front of oppressors or that don't make sense to the more powerful culture, and terms used as slurs might be co-opted back within the community (think n---a vs n---er); on the flip-side, children might be given names from the oppressing culture, to help that child blend in better and to take some of the power for that child.

When individuals from the more powerful group "borrow" names from the less powerful group, therefore, it can be felt as yet another example of the more powerful blithely stepping on the culture and autonomy of the less powerful. The greater and more long-standing the power imbalance, and the more important to or representative of the culture the particular name is, the stronger the negative feelings about this practice are likely to be.

In the other direction, parents from the more marginalized group "borrowing" names from the dominant group might be seen by members of the dominant group to be (rightly) trying to assimilate or to be (unjustifiably) "aping their betters", according to the particulars of the group dynamics and the dominant individual in question. It might also pass entirely unnoticed, since the dominant names are normalized where traditional names of the oppressed group would be seen as deviant--for example, many White Americans wouldn't blink at a Black child named Becky or Tom but think non-silent dashes are hilarious.

When the power flow is more balanced (and specifically balanced at the more-autonomous end of the scale), as in the case of most first world countries, the borrowing of names is less fraught.

June 8, 2016 7:43 PM

The power of naming continues to be used as a tool of imperialism and colonisation. The U.S. is still an imperialist country no matter how much the settlers of this land try to deny it. Native people were often assigned and/or forced to take on "white" names as part of the United States' attempts to assimilate Native people to white American society (i.e. the dominant/colonizing culture) and, in the process, to destroy Native cultures. This process has been ongoing for centuries , but it hasn't ended.

Take a look at this article from a little over a year ago:

Many Native Americans had their Facebook accounts deactivated because the site didn't accept their names as real names.

And then there are people who think something like this is totally acceptable:

June 8, 2016 8:33 PM

Speaking of resisting oppression through naming, there is a Jewish tradition that says that God redeemed Israel from Egypt because the Israelites kept their names.  I am not sure if according to Exodus they all did:  Moses is an Egyptian name supposedly bestowed by the Egyptian princess who adopted him, but there is a tradition that his real name bestowed by his mother Yocheved was Avigdor (several other "real" names have also been proposed by tradition).

June 8, 2016 10:52 PM

You've hit on a lot of excellent points here. 

I think that this also underlies the offence taken to using Cohen as a given name. This is a sacred title passed down generation to generation, and that survived numerous attempts at obliteration over thousands of years. It's been whispered in children's ears as they are simultaneously told to pretend that they aren't Jewish at all, in order to survive. It's a link to our history. I can read the bible and know that I am descended from these men. I can think about my family and imagine fathers telling their children -- going back more generations than i can associate with names or faces -- that they are Kohanim, and all that is associated with that honour. It's not just a name, and seeing it used as such feels highly disrespectful. 

June 9, 2016 12:47 AM

Karyn, very well put.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I associate the odious rise of the use of Cohen as a given name with the tv show The O.C. (2003-2007).  There is a Cohen family on the show, and I believe that the teenage son was often called by his surname, which apparently gave some people the idea that this was a great name for their kid.  I never saw a single episode of that show, so I am just going by a vague memory of something I read somewhere.

June 9, 2016 9:59 AM

That sounds very plausible. I just looked up the show. It debuted in 2003, and Cohen appeared on the charts for the first time in 2004, debuting at 651. It jumped to 432 in 2005 and slowly climbed into the mid-300s, where it sits today (at 336). The two-syllable ends in -n trend seems to be fading a bit for boys, so perhaps the use of Cohen as a given name will fall in popularity soon.

June 9, 2016 10:30 AM

Ah, I see you two already hit on the plausible OC source of this phenomenon. I mentioned it just now, in a reply that's upthread.

June 9, 2016 6:35 AM

I'd like to display some random thoughts and play a little devil's advocate here. A little of my personal thoughts and a little bit of trying to get inside other people's heads. So not trying to insult here and don't want someone (Miriam) to jump her arms through my laptop and strangle me.

I had never known of a person with the first name Cohen before coming to this site. I first saw it mentioned here a few years ago, but the explanation wasn't on that particular thread, and I was curious. I will tell you that it took more than a minute on the google machine for me to find out what it was and why it is offensive. Just now when I searched, it came up right away. So the point is, that I can see where a non-name fanatic might like the sound and maybe have an admiration for someone with the last name. Maybe they are aware of the last name being Jewish (I was previous to my schooling from Miriam, but only that it was a Jewish last name and nothing more). So, they did a few searches, saw Hebrew, Preist and not much more and thought it sounded fine. Again, today articles come up immediately, so I would not condone someone naming a kid Cohen today, but not that long ago, I can see it. Now, for me, it is probably the only name I would protest to a pregnant friend without being asked for my opinion.

When I was a kid, and there was no more than about four tv channels, I saw the move Gypsy about a zillion times. I know that who I really liked was Natalie Wood; I was a fan from other moves as well, and should have liked the name Natalie, but Gypsy was the name I liked. As an adult, I've ran into a handful of Gypsys. My guess is that their mothers had the same feeling I did, but didn't grow out of it and get a little better educated, as I did - and, yes were ignorant of the Romani people - thinking more of freedom of travel, mystery and other cool things when thinking of "Gypsies."

And, I can see somone hearing or seeing the name Aiyana and googling or before much internet reading a misinformed baby name book, thinking the name and "meaning" are really cool.

It's been mentioned that the people with the names can't be blamed, but the judgment of the parents fall into question. And I have done some eye-rolling on this site and internal eye-rolling in real life with names I thought were disrespectful, misspelled and downright dumb. But, I think in a lot of cases (I think of Gypsy here, in particular, because I have actually met some and understood where the parents may have been coming from) that, yes ignorance plays into it, but no one is expected to be knowledgeable on everything.

I get what people are saying about research before naming a kid outside of their heritage; but my point is that some people (I am mostly taking up for pre-internet people here) were thinking of names as an honor not an insult. And, as Miriam said, most books and sites are trash, anyway. If only everyone found this site before naming people, the world would be a better place - and I do not mean that facetiously - really, most of the regulars are super intelligent and interesting. That is why I have this addiction!

My elderly father, along with his sister, and I had a disagreement about our Native American heritage a few years ago. They insisted that my great-great grandmother was Cherokee. My grandmother always said it was Sioux. Cherokee would actually make more sense, because that part of the family was mostly from the south. The reason I remember Sioux is that when I heard my grandmother tell these stories, I was barely old enough to read and thought "Sue." When I was a little older and found out the correct spelling, I thought Sioux or Siouxzy would be a great name for a little girl :) 


June 9, 2016 10:39 AM

Not to worry, I don't have enough strength in my arthritic hands to open a jar of peanut butter, let alone strangle anyone through a laptop.

I think part of the problem of ill-advised cultural appropriation and otherwise "downright dumb" names is this overwhelming desire for a "unique" name.  Time was names were often chosen with the idea of connecting the child to something, usually family heritage, but also great historical figures.  Children were named "after" someone important to their parents.  This led to generations of Johns and Marys, and nothing offensive or "dumb."  Then sometime after I reached adulthood, American individualism turned into "special snowflake-ism," and suddenly people started looking for names that were familiar and recognizable but also "unique."  Since that is a contradiction in terms, good luck with that.  Sometimes the search for the unique led to a charming and felicitous choice (which was then copied and suddenly not so unique), but often the choice was infelicitous or even downright offensive.  I remember a discussion of whether naming a child Messiah was offensive or just an ill-advised burden of expectations.

Yes, each snowflake is unique, or so we are told--can't prove it by me, but they are very very similar.  A single snowflake amounts to nothing much, but a gazillion of them stuck together stops traffic.  Maybe it's time to temper our individualism a bit, in naming and in other aspects of life.

Oh, and Siouxsie and the Banshees thought it was a good idea too (talk about cultural mish-mash).

June 9, 2016 10:55 AM

LOL, Miriam!


Along the lines of e Siouxsie and the Banshees (sorta), I was thinking a lot of parents of Gypsies might be Stevie Nicks fans. Given that the US doesn't have a large Romani population, and that anti-Romani bigotry isn't a huge phenomenon here, I think it makes sense that Nicks could sing, "You see your Gypsy that I was," without it sounding nearly as offensive as if she were to sing, say, "You see your N---r that I was." No, that would be inconceivable, apart perhaps from in a rap context. Or the case of Rolling Stones, who, in their heyday, got away with the song Brown Sugar. Have you all actually listened to those lyrics? Holy mother of crap are they offensive. 


June 9, 2016 5:19 PM

The lyrics to "Brown Sugar" are so, um, out there that even the Stones bowdlerized them or interpreted them as being less out there than they are.  It doesn't matter whether you think that brown sugar has a double meaning for heroin or not, I would say best not to listen too closely.....

June 9, 2016 5:44 PM

Hadn't thought of Stevie Nicks... I did think of Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves," but I don't think that would inspire parents' naming choices. Also, I checked a few years in the SSA data for the name Gypsy, and it seems to have existed for decades before either Stevie Nicks or Cher could have given it a boost.

Gracious me! I just looked up the lyrics to Brown Sugar! I had no idea! All I knew was the lines "...just around midnight / Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good / Brown Sugar just like .... should."

June 9, 2016 4:23 PM

I think you're right about individualism driving the trend, but as someone living in a country with a great deal less name diversification, I have to say I find it boring.

I was in a prenatal class today with no fewer than four women (out of 15) named Anna. And nobody was going by a nickname. Yawn.

How about Banshee for a name? ;-)

June 9, 2016 5:06 PM

My son was born in West Texas in 1979, and every single girl born to the women in my pregnant lady class was named Heather, and most of the boys were named Justin.  This is not an exaggeration--that's what it was.  Talk about boring!

June 9, 2016 5:53 PM

How incredibly dull! I also find it odd that they didn't talk about names during the class and realize they were all spawning a horde of little Heathers and Justins...

June 9, 2016 5:49 PM

Do you mind me asking what country you're in? Do they have government restrictions on naming?

I actually like the sound of Banshee, but it's immediately associated with death to me, so I would never think of it as a name for a person.