Cultural/religiously meaningful names: Is there an unspoken law preventing usage?

Hello, I'm really not in an immediate hurry for real naming suggestions (19 and fortunately not needing names yet), however I love thinking about names, and one pattern I've found myself falling into since I was about 13 is falling in love with obviously foreign names, most commonly Jewish, Germanic or Russian. Names such as Anastasia, Tatiana (which is a no go now as my younger sister [who is five) is named Tiana), Hedy, Anja and Edel. However I recently came across the name Zipporah and I absolutely love the sound of it, however I know the religious implications coming with the name and I was raised in a non-religious family, and I am pretty well non-religious myself. However, I do find that I am perhaps the word is Culture-Hungry, being as I am an Australian whose distant ancestral links are Scottish and English. To me, I feel that Australia is such a mix of cultures, that it just doesn't have a tangible identity (or if it does, it is the Laconic Bushman hero, and his Laconic, hard working, hardened wife archetypes which are often held up by Australian people, yet are realistically nonexistent (I'm thinking here characters such as in the works of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson) I feel like I don't have a culture or traditions in my family or surroundings so I grasp towards what I don't have (this here, is the only way I can explain my absolute fascination with head scarfs and beautiful foreign clothing). Therefore there are multifaceted reasons as to why this name could go badly for me, namely my parents and the religious communities ( I live in a strongly catholic region in Australia).

Anyhow, what I really want to ask is, do you believe there is a sort of unspoken rule about the use of culture-specific names, or cultural-important names outside of said culture?

And if there is, how strongly do you believe the reaction would be to a breaking of this rule?

Further, if there is in fact such a rule, must I take Australian Aboriginal names out of contention as I am an outsider in this group also.

(Perhaps I shall be left with little Victorias and Elizabeths despite the fact that we are also on the outer of Monarchial England. ) 

Thanks for taking time to read my hodge-podge of a dilema, I hope it made sence and that I don't seem like a complete fool to you all, it's just something I feel the need to clarify with other name loving folk.


June 20, 2012 12:13 PM

I, for one, honestly believe that other cultures are fair game. Certainly, other names do cross the barrier and make it into English as standard names all the time: Tatiana, Caitlin, and Leila are examples. Even Jennifer is originally Cornish, not English. Michelle was popular for a while specifically because it wasn't English. And you can look around the world for examples of other cultures appropriating English names: the #1 girl's name in Germany right now is Lily.

That said, some cultures are much more sensitive to appropriation than others--check the blog archives for discussion on the name Cohen, for example. In general, I'd say that Russians and Germans have less problem with out-group members taking their names than Jews, for example. So, you might want to be sensitive to that, but in the end, groups really don't have lockdowns on names. They might really want it, they might decide to become offended, but they don't.

As a Mexican/White/Spanish/English/French/German/Irish/Celtic/Berber/Jewish/Native American mutt, I, and my entire ancestry, says screw the boundaries and just live.

June 20, 2012 1:41 PM

I'd just like to clarify something about the name Cohen. It's not just that it's a Hebrew name that is being used by non-Jews. There are tons of names that have left the realm of being exclusively Jewish, and while I am sometimes surprised to meet a non-Jew named, say, Shoshana, it's not upsetting to see the name used outside the culture. However, Cohen is a different story. Cohen is not just a Hebrew name, it's the name of the holiest of the holy - the high priests, dating back to biblical times. It's the use of a name that holds great meaning and connotes a line of ancestry dating back thousands of years, by someone with no connection to that history that ruffles feathers.

If I met an Australian, non-Jewish Zipporah, I'd think, "Well that's funny. I wonder how her parents chose that name. I guess they thought it was pretty." If I met a non-Jew named Cohen, I would think that his parents had no idea about the culture from which they took the name. Cohen has great religious significance, while Zipporah means bird. They are very different scenarios.

Yes, I believe that choosing a Jewish name will likely raise many more questions from people than choosing a German or Russian name, but not all Jewish names are equal. Especially now, with the way that previously-rare Biblical names have taken off.

June 20, 2012 1:51 PM

I whole-heartedly second Karyn's reply.  I think that culturally specific names are really to be taken on a case by case basis, and a knowledge of the culture you're borrowing from is important to avoid situations like "Cohen."

June 20, 2012 5:35 PM

I'm thirding Karyn as well. I think the case-by-case aspect works well for you, because then you'll get to spend a lot of time researching names you love so you have a better sense of context/usability. As a fellow name lover, this is one of my favorite aspects of naming, and since you're so young, you have plenty of time to get a good grasp on what works and what doesn't.

I'm an American, so I do know what it's like to be from a country made up largely of immigrants without much ties to my ethnic/cultural roots, and what's been important to me is to have a good handle on the names I love, and that knowledge base makes it personal for me. It's kind of like how since you may not have any biological similarities to your best friend, you love them because you know them; this is how I approach naming, and I think it's a strategy that would work really well for you.

June 20, 2012 6:39 PM

I'll be the Devil's Advocate and argue that Cohen is in fact just another name, and that it can be claimed "legitimately" by non-Jews in an inarguable non-controversial way. Here's the logic; #1 Cohen is a common surname, and #2 there's a well-established tradition of transferring surnames to given names in various (naming)-cultures. Therefore, if you've got, say, a grandfather with the surname Cohen, and you live in/belong to the surname-transfer-circles, then Cohen is fair game for a first name. It may mean something very special and holy in the Jewish circles, but that's like in a parallel universe to the surname-transfer thing if you're not Jewish yourself.  

June 20, 2012 7:53 PM

I agree with Karyn.  Zipporah is fine.  Over the centuries since the Reformation it's been in use, albeit uncommon use, in England.  It's really no different than Rebecca or Sarah or Miriam in that regard except for its rarity in the English-speaking world.  The initial consonant may be part of the reason for its very limited use.  The Z is not the z in zipper.  It's the -ts in cats, and that sound does not occur in initial position in English, although it does in German.  Tzipporah was my maternal grandmother's name--she went by the Yiddish nickname Tzippe (roughly Tzee-puh--slightly more ee than like the i in it).  The current Israeli Modern Hebrew nickname is Tzipi (rhymes with Pippi).  I personally find the Anglicized pronunciation of z like Zipper a tad strange, but no doubt it would be adorable to have a little Zipi zipping around.

Cohen is another matter entirely.  Anna-X, it may seem like a surname to you, but it isn't--it's an hereditary title, holy in nature.  To illustrate:  my father's name was Eliyahu ben Shlomo Chaim ben Yitzchak Moshe ha-Cohen followed by his civil surname--let's pretend it was Schwartz. So my father's civil name was Edward "Schwartz," but neither Edward nor Schwartz was anything but a civil convenience.  His real name in toto was Eliyahu ben Shlomo Chaim ben Yitzchak Moshe ha-Cohen.  People in the larger society called him Ed or Eddie, but at home he was always Ellie, although my grandmother called him Eliyahu ha-Navi (Elijah the Prophet) sometimes for fun.

Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were forced to take surnames starting in 1798, and Czarist Russia followed suit shortly thereafter.  The imperial registrars neither knew nor cared about Jewish naming traditions and assumed Cohen was a surname as per the law, but it wasn't.  It was and is a title.  Jews in general are not attached to their surnames, even to this day, and change their surnames at the drop of a hat.  Those who do Jewish genealogy cannot rely on surnames to trace family history.  They only date to around the year 1800 at the earliest, and they change all over the place.  It is therefore not the Jewish custom to use family surnames as given names.  You will not see Jews, at least those having even the loosest ties to tradition, using Cohen as a given name.  It is IMO beyond disrespectful and culturally insensitive to appropriate an hereditary title which does not belong to one's family as if it were just a common surname.  It's not like Cooper or Sawyer or Taylor.  I personally also think it is inappropriate to use any surnames as given names if they are not on one's own family tree, unless the surnames have been used for so long and so frequently as given names that they have lost their 'surname-y' quality--I am thinking here of names like Irving and Sidney.  (Note: the naming customs/history I am discussing apply to Ashkenazic Jews.  Sephardic Jews have surnames going back much further.)

Because Jews are matrilineal, there are some non-Jews with paternal Jewish ancestry who use Cohen as a surname.  Former Senator William Cohen of Maine comes to mind.  (Oddly Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts also had a paternal grandfather who used the name Kohn, but who changed it to Kerry when he converted to Catholicism.)  In such cases, Cohen has become a surname and could possibly be justified as a given name within that family.


June 21, 2012 11:20 AM

Huh, I had always assumed Kerry was of Irish Catholic descent.  Do you think John Kerry's grandfather changed his name when he converted because he understood the history of Cohen?  It seems it could have been a change out of respect for the name.  Although, trying to seem less Jewish without caring about preserving/respecting the meaning of Cohen could also have been his motivation.  I guess we'll never know.

June 21, 2012 12:03 PM

According to Wikipedia (so take with a grain of salt), when they converted to Catholicism, Mr. and Mrs. Kohn opened a map and stuck a pin in it, and the pin landed on County Kerry in Ireland.  So they became Mr. and Mrs. Kerry.   I have no way of knowing what was going through the minds of John Kerry's forebears in particular, but generally when Jews converted to Christianity and changed their names it was to get out from under anti-Semitism, persecution, and discrimination. Even in my lifetime anti-Jewish discrimination was alive and well in the US (see the early episodes of Mad Men), and I am sure it still is in some quarters.  In my youth upscale neighborhoods had anti-Jewish exclusionary covenants in real estate deeds.  Elite universities and medical schools had exclusionary quotas for Jews.  Major corporations did not hire Jews.  During the Mad Men  years I worked on a part-time vasis at a major oldline insurance company (founded during the colonial period to insure trans-Atlantic shipping).  Other than me, there was ONE Jewish employee.  He was on the lowest management rung, and it was clear that he would never be promoted no matter his job performance.  In my academic department, I was the first Jew to receive tenure in its history (the university was founded in the late 50s), although nationally Jews are overrepresented in academia.  There was one other Jew in the department, but she was tenured in the foreign language department and decided unilaterally to relocate herself to the English department.  Following me there were two others, and we all were graced with anonymous anti-Semitic rants in our department mailboxes.  One individual (before my time) did not get tenure (and in our department during the 25 years I was there everyone who stood for tenure got it). because his last name was Cohen (he, like William Cohen of Maine, was not even Jewish).  One chairman (who was listed in the Social Register) openly refused to consider job applicants with "Jewish" names.  The very first day I taught classes at my new job, a student came up to me and told me that I would love New Orleans because "we don't allow Jews to participate in Mardi Gras."  Indeed the tradition is for (affluent) Jews to go skiing in Colorado during the Mardi Gras break.  So that's generally why Jews changed their names, whether or not they converted to Christianity.

June 22, 2012 9:32 AM

Miriam, thank you for sharing your experiences.  I'm shocked by some of the treatment you received.  Sadly, I suppose I shouldn't be.   

June 22, 2012 9:48 AM

NotAGuestAnymore, if I were to tell you of the treatment of women at my Ivy League university during the MadMen era (mid sixties), it would be another smelling salts moment.  Women weren't allowed in the lounge in the student center, the one with the comfy chairs and the newspapers, and weren't even allowed to be cheerleaders.  No tenured women.  Sexual harassment and frat house gang rape commonplace.  Maybe that is why I am so opposed to boys' names (and even unisex) for girls.  I'm very uncomfortable with the message that in order to have opportunities or to give off a "strong" vibe, it's advantageous to give the impression of being male.  Let daughters proudly fly the girl flag.  As it happens, the two most recent presidents  of my university were/are women (Judy and Amy), and one of them was even in my small capstone senior seminar when I was an undergrad.

June 22, 2012 8:41 PM

I really wish there was a like button here.  Women of my generation need to be reminded of the experiences of women from your generation more often.  Thank you.

June 23, 2012 1:55 AM

I second this. I also don't understand the fuzz (haha) about Cohen. I don't see it as all that different than using Bishop or something. But then again I think dancing around religion is weird (for instance I think it's a logically indefensible stance to be anti-circ except for Jews).  "God said so" is poor reasoning to me.  

ETA:  I meant to second Lin's first post. Also, I would't personally use Cohen because I'd like my child to have a more inconspicuous name, but I don't think using it for the sound is a terrible transgression. 

June 20, 2012 4:41 PM

As a fellow Australian, I can relate to many of your issues. If you look on both sides of our family we have ancestory from pretty much any European country at some point. However, most of this is dating 100-200 years back so I don't identify with any particular culture. As you say Australia is really a mish-mash and you either strongly identify as being of (for example) Italian, Greek etc origin or it's a bit neutral.

Personally I think that most names are fair game. There are exceptions and Cohen is a good one. There is nothing stopping someone from using it but it is a bit insensitive and uneducated in my opinion. I feel like some of the American Indian names might be the same. As far as German or Russian names, I think they are fair game (in general, there might be some exceptions) and you probably just need to be prepared to have some questions every now and then about why you picked that name.

We gave our daughter a Scandanavian first name, French middle name and she has a very German surname. A pretty big mash-up. She is a blonde haired, blue eyed Australian and I don't see it as an issue, but I know some people may think it is naming outside 'cultural boundaries'. So far, though, we haven't had any negative comments in this regard.

June 20, 2012 7:54 PM

I don’t know about off-limits, but you do get eyebrows when you/your children have names that don’t see to fit with what you look like. My children have very Old Testament Jewish names (in their first and middle names we have Miriam, Rachel, Jacob, Rebecca, Abigail, and Abram). My husband’s family is Jewish, but of the Dutch variety - he’s blonde. I’m half-Cuban and half-Indian: no one ever has any idea what ethnicity I am, but Jewish is usually not a guess.  

If we’re just with one of the kids, it’s not really a big deal. But if we have a few of them together, we definitely get some surprised looks. The best is people who know the names of our kids, but haven’t met us (such as teachers). We have five kids, very close in age, with Jewish names in New York City - people are expecting conservative Jews and are shocked when we walk in and neither of us is obviously Jewish. 

It’s really more funny than anything - due to my genes, my kids all have dark hair, dark eyes and look more Jewish than either of us, so it hasn’t been a problem for them at all. I wouldn’t give up a name that I loved just because of that. There are some areas where one should tread carefully - I wouldn’t argue that something that Cohen is off-limits, just that it might be more respectful to pick something else. 

June 20, 2012 8:39 PM

Neena, I think the Hebrew biblical names are fair game for everyone, not just Jews.  They are used in one form or another throughout much of the world.  If you were to meet a large Amish family, you would encounter exactly the same names as your kids have.  In the Netherlands Jacob, Miriam and Abram (Bram) are especially popular.  When I lived in the Netherlands people kept asking me why I have a Dutch name, and I had to explain that it isn't.  I have never met so many Miriams in my life as I did in the Netherlands.  My closest Dutch friend is Jacobus (he goes by Jack).  You will find these biblical names all over Africa, and in Arabic form throughout the Islamic world.

And as for not "looking Jewish," Jews are not racially homogeneous and can look every which way, no matter the stereotypes.

June 20, 2012 9:23 PM

Miriam, your insight in Jewish naming is such an asset to the community.  You've taught me a lot and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the way you share! 

As an Asian Esther, I have only experienced curiosity from the parents of my friends about my Biblical name.  I think everyone else (rightly) assumes that my parents are religious.  I have never met an Esther who wasn't.

By Guest (not verified)
June 20, 2012 9:23 PM

My family is Italian and I have an Italian name, yet people have been surprised because I don't "look Italian". Not my problem that I don't fit their stereotype of what an Italian should look like.

Plenty of Christians (and non-Christians) use Biblical names too.


June 21, 2012 7:46 AM

Interesting question and very interesting answers.  I would also suggest that in some cases a parent's personal background could override their family/cultural heritage in choosing a name from a different culture.

For example, if you fell in love with German culture, learned German and spent time travelling or living in German-speaking countries, it might feel completely natural to give your child a German name in honour of this.  If you got surprised reactions to the name, you would easily be able to explain why you chose it.

I'm not saying that a person has to have that level of immersion in a culture to choose a name from that culture, but just that the two might go together.

Also, the wildcard is that the other parent of the child will have their own personal/cultural background, and that might make the decision easier...or harder!

June 21, 2012 10:14 AM

I have a Dutch friend who loves Sweden and another who loves Denmark, and they named their sons Olaf and Nils respectively.  Also in the years following WWII it became common for Dutch people to give their children "English" names in gratitude for the British, American, and Canadian troops who liberated the Netherlands.  One of my friends grew up in a city that was liberated by a Scots regiment, and for many years after, all the boys in that town were taught to play the Great Highland bagpipes in commemoration.

I think the key to choosing a name (or indeed any cultural practice) from another culture is to understand that culture well enough so that the choice is not insensitive or inappropriate. 

June 21, 2012 9:46 AM

I know I opened with a defense of using names from other cultures, but I'd just add that although there is nothing stopping someone from using Cohen, it will still send a message of insensitivity to a number of communities.

Especially if it's chosen for the sound--the name Cowan is still available in a number of spellings.

June 22, 2012 3:08 PM

Can I just ask, since I'm really curious about this; Cohen seems to be a fairly common surname, so what exactly is it that makes it so off-limit as a given name? Is it when non-Jews are using it, or is there some big difference between surnames and given names that I (a non-Jew) just don't understand!? 

June 22, 2012 3:49 PM

Cohen is a hereditary title, meaning that the bearer of the title belongs to the ancient lineage of the high priests of Israel.  As a title, it is appended to the full official name of the bearer. e.g., my father's name Eliyahu ben Shlomo Chaim ben Yitzchok Moshe ha-Cohen.  To analyze that name, Eliyahu is my father's given name, he is the son of (ben) Shlomo Chaim, who is the son of Yitzhok Moshe.  The grandfather's name is added for the purpose of disambiguation, since there are only about 150 names allowable, and so it is likely that several in a community will have the same name.  This is particularly likely in a small community many of whose members are related, since all the members will be named after deceased family, often the same deceased individual.  So that's the end of the name per se.  "Ha-Cohen," meaning 'the priest," is not a name.  It's not a given name, it's not a surname, it's a title to be borne only by those descended from the high priests of Israel, no one else.  BTW there are still particular rituals, restrictions, and privileges attached to those with the rank of Cohen.

Now here is where the confusion sets in.  In the period following 1798 when Jews in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires were forced by the governments to take surnames, the bureaucrats charged with recording the new surnames saw a name like Eliyahu ben Shlomo Chaim ben Yitzchok Moshe ha-Cohen and mistakenly assumed that the Cohen part was the newly acquired surname and so recorded it.  They were mistaken, but nonetheless Cohen entered the records as the surname of that individual and so was passed down as surnames (as opposed to true patronyms) are.  As it happens my family surname is not Cohen, but ha-Cohen is appended as a title following the name of every male in the family.  The surname then follows that, and as far as Jewish law is concerned the surname is not really part of the name--it's a mere appendage forced by civil law.

Thus it is inappropriate (to say the least) for Cohen to be given as a name to someone who is not a member of the priestly lineage.  Cohen is not a random surname like Mason or Tyler or Cooper borne by people who have no discernible connection to stonecutting, tile laying, or barrelmaking and thus suitable for people to use as given names.  Cohen is a still active title, carrying with it certain duties, restrictions, and privileges that belong to those who have that particular heritage, and no one else.

By Guest (not verified)
June 23, 2012 3:24 AM

Words are words. You can appropriate them however you see fit. Others may judge you for it, but that's a decision you are free to make for yourself. With Cohen specifically, I would argue that a vast majority will not be offended, but obviously some people will. Again, it's all about your own values. My sister is outraged that there is a little boy down the street named "Jesus," but, in his culture, that is not inappropriate. 

By Guest (not verified)
June 23, 2012 1:21 PM

But there is a HUGE difference between a Christian person choosing the name Jesus and a non-Jewish person choosing the name Cohen. 

As a Christian, you have a right to view your OWN religion any way you want.  Some Christians may view it as distasteful, while you do not. Faith in the broad family of christianity varies. That is NOT appropriation.

Choosing Cohen for its sound and becuase you like the way it looks is highly different. That's a shallow reason to insult and belittle another faith's religious titles.  I think it's also a subtle issue here. Cohen is a religious title and that is something no one has the right to give a child. It can't be bestowed by a parent.

Cohen is more than a word.  Many words are more than just words.  Words have power.  Zipporah is not pne of them though. It's just a name that means bird.  The same way, anyone from our society might choose Robin or Birdie.  The difference is only the language.  I do think people should think about what message they are sending. Do you want people to think your child is Israeli or Jewish?  Not that either of those are bad things.  But is it the identity you want to precede them. Or would it be better ot showcase what the lineage they actually have? But that's a more open question.

Cohen is not acceptable.  And for me, Jesus would probably be unaccetable too ( but I doubt many Jews would even consider it.)

June 23, 2012 3:27 PM

I still don't see it as different than using Priest, Bishop, or even Bodhi as names. 

June 23, 2012 8:31 PM

Once again, Cohen is an inherited title the lineage of which goes back thousands of years.  Only those who have this heritage are entitled to use it.  Anyone else is usurping something to which he is not entitled.  OTOH anyone can call him-/herself priest or bishop.  People start up their own little churches, even their own religions, all the time and anoint themselves priests and/or bishops.  There are no qualifications or exclusivity to those words. They are up for grabs.   As for Bodhi I don't know how Buddhists feel about random people choosing that name for their sons. 

How appropriate do you think it would be for non-Muslims to name their sons Mohammed?  After all that is a name (and I think it is the most widely used given name in the world, although I may be wrong about that), not a title, either inherited or earned.  Judging from the huge pushback when a grade school class named a teddy bear Mohammed after one of the boys in the class, I don't think a trend of using the name Mohammed for Christian or atheist or animist or whatever boys would go down a treat in the Muslim world.  Again I may be wrong, but my guess is that those Christians/atheists/whatever who think it's perfectly fine to name their child Cohen, a designation to which he is not entitled, would not dare to offend the Muslims by calling a child Mohammed.

As for names just being words, recall the furor over that couple in Pennsylvania or New Jersey or wherever who gave their children Nazi homage names, the case where the bakery employees refused to write the name on the child's birthday cake.  That couple lost custody of their children, although I assume it wasn't just because of the names, but rather that other aspects of their parenting were lacking.  And the reaction to the Stormfront types who named their daughter Aryan Nation.

By Guest (not verified)
June 23, 2012 9:24 PM

Also, I'd like to add that while people CAN name their child anything they want, why would they deliberately choose a name that many people would find offensive.  Especially if it is something to which they have NO connection. Was the OC really that good? 

A name should be given with joy and be able to bring others joy.  I cringe when I have to call a baby or child Cohen.  I only hope the people who give this name live somewhere without any Jews. But I know for a fact not all do.

June 23, 2012 11:00 PM

I agree!

I'm not sure why this conversation has gotten so pedantic. Miriam has clearly and thoroughly laid out why using this name is offensive. I mean, you won't be arrested for naming your child Cohen, but it's one name. Simply accept that it isn't something you can name your child, because really, isn't it better to be thoughtful and accommodating than insensitive and contrary? And hasn't the Jewish community been treated crappily enough already, without having a holy lineage be appropriated for the sake of fashion?


June 23, 2012 11:29 PM

I'm marginally Catholic and certainly not anyone can call themselves a Priest or a Bishop.  Those are titles and offices bestowed by the Church. In my religion people "making up their own religions" is no different than some one on the street "making up" their own kind of Judiasm and calling themselves Cohen. Neither Jews nor Catholics have the "true" religion in my mind so religious titles are kind of innately meaningless.  Yes words have meanings but they are fluid and determined by their users. I would argue that popular use of Cohen is altering it's original use just as the Nazis have changed the connotations if Aryan.  I would't personally use either name but I'm especially uncomfortable with letting religion (which I'm treating as akin to fairy tales in this argument) dictate the "acceptability" of names. 

Which brings me to Mohammed. It's a perfect example of my aforementioned problem and that is because (some) Muslims do not hesitate to do violence in response to something that offends their religion. It's not OK that the world has to tiptoe around Islam for fear of violent retaliation justified by fairytales.  It's not Ok to avoid a name because it might offend someone.  I have no problem with anyone using Cohen, Jesus, Mohammed, or Budha any more than Cinderella or Snow White. 

By EVie
June 24, 2012 1:30 AM

I'm neither Jewish nor at all religious (in fact, I'm an unabashed atheist), and in general, I agree with a lot the things you're saying about religion. I have a hard time sometimes understanding how people can live their lives based around thousands-of-years-old stories. I particularly don't like to have other people's religious beliefs shoved down my throat through legislation.


I think Miriam has done a heroic job explaining (and explaining, and explaining) the in-group perspective on why Cohen is offensive to Jewish people. I'm going to attempt a pragmatic out-group perspective. In sum:  It's not a good idea to *proactively* do things that offend other groups. Never mind whether you have the right to do it, or whether you disagree about whether it *should* be offensive. It *is* offensive, and it *will* offend them. You can argue until you're blue in the face, but you're not going to change their minds. All you will do is alienate people and lose potential friends and allies.

Now, maybe you don't care if you offend people and make them dislike you, particularly if you feel you have nothing in common with these people and are unlikely to encounter them—I suppose that's your prerogative (though I find it shortsighted and narrow-minded). But we're talking about making this decision on behalf of a child, who has no choice in the matter. Please, think.  Is this really the way you want to send a beloved child out into the world—bearing a name that will cause him to unintentionally offend people before they've even met him? You don't know when in his life your son may encounter Jewish people who would be bothered by his name. You don't know who will be reading his college applications or resumes, who his professors and bosses will be. You can argue that these people would be wrong for judging him based on his name, and you would be right—after all, he didn't choose it. But that doesn't change the fact that it could happen.

I also think that by focusing so much on religion and whether or not those beliefs are valid, you're kind of missing the point. Judaism is not only a religion, but a culture, and one that has been marginalized and worse for as long as Christianity has been the dominant religion in the West (and before, as well, but we won't go into that). And, as ilikemints said above—don't you think the Jewish people have dealt with enough disrespect at the hands of the majority? (I'm not even talking about Nazi Germany here—see Miriam's comments upthread at #8). You argue that we shouldn't let other people's religions restrict our choices, and in most cases I do agree with you—(I will defend to the death your right to name your kid Lilith, Delilah or Jezebel, regardless of how horribly they're presented in religious texts)—but in this case, in which we're debating "this is sacred to my people" vs. "I like how it sounds," I feel that respecting someone else's culture trumps fashion.  

It's just one name, out of thousands to choose from. If someone is totally enamored of the sound, they can spell it Cowan, Cowen or Coen (an unrelated Dutch surname) without offending anyone. So, please. It's a matter of basic respect.

Incidentally, Cohen is not the only name that I would recommend avoiding due to potentially causing offense. I probably wouldn't count Jesus, since it's accepted in Hispanic cultures, but Christ, Messiah, Adonai, Jehovah, Yahweh and plain old God might count (heck, some people are offended simply by spelling out those last ones—I'm sorry, in that case). We've also had some discussions about India on the blog here (controversial due to the legacy of British colonialism), and Native American names like Dakota.

June 24, 2012 2:20 AM

Please don't think *I* would consider using Cohen as a name!  The reasons you mentioned about having a "blank slate" name are exactly my M. O.--I'm a John and Elizabeth kind of namer personally. I'm trying to advance a thought experiment here. I do see your points that people are situated in contexts and abstraction about names is impractical. I also reckon (see Namipedia entry on Cohen) that many people use it totally without knowledge of it's loaded meaning. It fits with the zeigiest of our naming style, I don't think the contraversy is well known in the general pool of namers, and many people never take their name choices to a message board or even tell others till the baby is born.   This pop culture phenomena may dilute some of the ways people percieve Cohen as a name  Or not. More likely it will be a small flash in the two-syllable ends in -n boys name pan. 

June 24, 2012 3:04 AM

Thanks, KO, for this further explanation of your point.  It's a very helpful clarification of your previous posts. I must confess that I personally subscribe to the philosophy that ignorance is no excuse--which may or may not be a flaw in my character.

As it happens I was just chatting with my son tonight--we were making plans for a big family celebration on August 7 when the adoption of our little darling Elliott will be finalized after two and a half years of infuriating bureaucratic hassle.  Now Elliott is African-American, and the rest of the family is not.  My son was pointing out how ignorance gives rise to offense that drives him crazy.  People are ALWAYS asking, "Where is he from?" and my son replies "Las Vegas."  And the person responds, "No, where is he FROM?" "Um, Las Vegas.""But he doesn't look African."  "He isn't African!"  Given the fact that Africa has more human genetic diversity than any other continent, there is no one way to look African, not to mention that the US has a large black population, so there is no reason to assume that a dark-skinned child in an otherwise light-skinned family must be imported from an "exotic" locale.  My son's assumption is that this repeated conversation must stem from ignorance, and not any sort of racist attitude, but it is offensive and insensitive nonetheless.  Frankly, it drives my son crazy, but he can handle it.  I dread the thought that one day Elliott will have to handle such remarks himself.  BTW I bought Elliott a t-shirt that says "Born in the USA."  Not Kenya....

EVie, I agree that people have the right to name their daughters Lilith, Delilah, and Jezabel, and these names fit right into current tastes.  But I can't get my head around the idea that someone would want to name a little girl after a demon that comes in the night to eat babies, but I guess that's just me.  As for Jezebel, an ultra-orthodox Jewish man asked why so many people were naming their daughters Jezabel.  (In Hebrew the name is  אִיזָבֶל 'Izevel/'Izavel).   I had to explain that the name he is hearing so much of is Isabel, which is a form of Elisheva (Elizabeth), nothing to do with Jezabel.  I confess to a wee giggle at his expense.

June 24, 2012 2:43 AM

I think that most perspectives have been addressed above, and I appreciate the respectful tone that so characterizes the conversations on this board. I'd like to add to what I said above, in response to EVie's comment. Although we don't typically talk about religion, I feel that it's appropriate, given the circumstances.

I am Jewish. I am a cohen. I am also an athiest. For me, the priestly inheritance - that I actually have from both of my parents, despite it not being terribly common - is not about service to God, but rather a direct link to my heritage. It is believed that the first cohen was Aaron, Moses's brother, and I love knowing that for more generations than I can count, my family has been orally passing down to their children the knowledge of where they came from. It's about family, culture, connection to the past. It's my roots, and it's very special to me.

I wouldn't say that I'm *offended* by the use of Cohen as a given name by people who have no idea where the name came from nor what it means. It generally takes malicious intent to offend me, and I don't believe that anyone who would embrace the name for their child would be doing so out of malice. Ignorance doesn't offend me, because really, I understand that many would never have the opportunity to be educated about Judaism, and I know that not everyone thoroughly researches names before selecting them. However, I do hope that once educated about what the name means to others, people would choose an alternative.

June 24, 2012 2:27 AM

KO, there are plenty of non-Catholic denominations and nondenominational churches in which people call themselves priests and bishops without the imprimatur of the Vatican.  The Anglican Communion, for example, is a non-Roman Catholic denomination in which  priests are ordained by church authority and bishops are elected, but there are PLENTY of little storefront nondenominational churches started by someone who feels the call to preach and who has no official ordination by any religious governing body.  These individuals style themselves priests and bishops and pastors and whatever else they choose and are so regarded by their congregations, some of which can grow very large depending on the charisma of the leader, and their titles are not bestowed by the Church (I would assumed the capitalized Church you refer to is by context the Roman Catholic Church) or by anyone else but themselves.  And, yes, people make up their own religions and attract followers all the time.  See Joseph Smith, Wallace D. Fard Muhammed, Gerald Gardner  and L. Ron Hubbard, among others.  As for religious titles being innately meaningless, do you think Joseph Ratzinger and the Dalai Lama would agree with you?  Hmm, come to think of it, what about naming a child Dalai Lama?  It reads kind of girl to me. :-)

Yes, in the US people can name their children what they please, and no one can stop a parent who chooses an inappropriate name.  If you name your child Cohen Jews will not come to your house and burn it down.  But the thread title asks if there is an unspoken law preventing [I would say "discouraging," since in the US, unlike many other countries, there are no laws preventing the bestowing of inappropriate names] the use of [other people's] cultural and religiously meaningful names.  The answer is yes, and if you name your child Cohen (and a number of other such names deriving from other cultures and religions), you will have violated that law, and your child may well pay a price for the violation, as EVie notes.

June 24, 2012 2:48 AM

Like I said earlier, this really is kind of an interesting thought experiment. I think at the heart of the issue is the way we collectively create meaning for and with one another. I know not all agree that religious titles are/are not meaningful. I'd argue that more people consider the title of Pope as less powerful today than people probably did in the Middle Ages. So what does that say about the Church?  

But that's beside the point I suppose. 


June 24, 2012 4:34 PM

Thank you. (And apologies, I missed your previous reply upthread). 

How do you feel about the following scenario, hypothetical but plausible: Someone has a grandfather with the surname Cohen, and the surname has been in the family since back when ha-Cohen was fake-surnameized, i.e. for like 200 years. Said someone doesn't consider him/herself to be Jewish; perhaps because he/she is 1/32 Jewish and 31/32 something else, and identifies with the something elses - same goes for the grandfather. (Put differently: they don't know, don't care about Jewish naming traditions). Now, if surname-to-firstname transfer is a common way of honouring someone among the something elses... doesn't that make Cohen fair game for them? 

June 24, 2012 6:49 PM

Anna-X, I think I mentioned this scenario somewhere, probably when I referred to Senator Cohen of Maine.  People who have Jewish fathers, but not Jewish mothers are not Jewish.  In many case such "paternal Jews" change their obviously Jewish surnames to avoid discrimination and persecution which they might well experience even though they are not in fact Jews.  In recent years now that being Jewish is no longer as dangerous as it once was, people like William Cohen who are not Jewish have retained their Jewish surnames.  Since in such cases, there would be a legitimate claim to the name Cohen, I could see their daughters bestowing their maiden name as a given name in order to  honor that part of their family heritage.  IMO that's a different situation from some random person who has no inherited connection to the name whatsoever appropriating Cohen as a given name.  I personally don't know of any non-Jewish Cohen using that surname as a given name, but perhaps it has happened.  I would imagine that Cohen would then show up as a middle name if at all. 

By Guest (not verified)
June 25, 2012 7:44 PM

I think it goes back to my earlier point that "Words are words. You can appropriate them however you see fit. Others may judge you for it, but that's a decision you are free to make for yourself." It's all about your values and how much you care about what other people think. Heck, you are free to name your child Adolf Hitler if you want to, even though it offends the vast majority of humanity, and will undoubtedly lead to a lifetime of pain for your child. Still, you are free to do so (at least in the U.S., I have no idea how naming legalities work elsewhere). You have to choose your own values. If you are the type of  person who chooses to ignore the heritage of the name Cohen, then go with it. If you do respect the heritage, then don't use it. End of story.