Pick a Name, Any Name (Well, Not Any Name)

September 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

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For two years in the late 90s, Peter Hessler taught English in Fuling, China, as part of the Peace Corps. His experiences are the subject of his best-selling River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.

In one passage, he writes about the interesting English names that his students had chosen for themselves, including a girl who was named Keller, after Helen Keller:

This was a common pattern; some of them had taken their names from people they admired, which explained why we had a Barbara (from Barbara Bush), an Armstrong (Neil Armstrong), and an idealistic second-year student called Marx. A few had translated their Chinese names directly—House, Yellow, North. There was one boy whose English name was Lazy. “My name is Lazy,” he said, on the first day of class. “I am very lazy. I do not like to play basketball or football or do many things. My hobbies are sleeping.”

Other names made less sense. There was a Soddy, a Sanlee, a Ker. Some were simply unfortunate: a very small boy called Pen, a very pretty girl named Coconut. One boy was called Daisy . . . .

Not all of the “unfortunate” names came from the students themselves. When the students asked for surnames to pair with their English given names, Adam, Hessler’s fellow teacher, gave Nancy the last name Drew. And when Mo asked Hessler for a surname, he became Mo Money.

I have some friends from Taiwan with less than mainstream English names. But who can blame them? Aren’t a lot of American names just a combination of letters, with no real meaning or heritage? And don’t people sometimes take common words and turn them into names for their children? Yes, both are true, but for some reason, some names seem to sound less right than others. Why not Mray? Why not Cabinet?

But who am I to judge? Before I moved to Taipei, I asked a friend from China for a Chinese name. He gave me Ke Lai, based on the sound of Craig. I liked it. And even after my new friends in Taiwan said it wasn’t a great name, I hung on to it, even going so far as to come up with a tortured defense for it. Ke means “overcome” and lai means “come,” so I figured that my name could match up with the first words spoken by the Master in The Analects of Confucius: “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?” (overcoming?) and “Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?” (come).

“Okaaaaaay . . . ,” said my my gracious friends, “but maybe it’s not quite right. It doesn’t sound Chinese.”

I didn’t want to give in—it was my name—until I realized that the Chinese for Chrysler is Ke-lai-se-le. I didn’t mind that my name sounded foreign, but sounding like a foreign car company was a little too much.

So how would you help an international friend who’s looking for an English name? Maybe you’d like to point them to the Bible as a good source for names. According to the Social Security Administration, during the first decade of the 2000s, 8 of the top 10 baby-boy names came from the Bible. But the Bible isn’t failsafe. Not every biblical name should be considered a good candidate. Some names have bad backstories (think, Judas and Jezebel), and some just don’t pass the sound test (for example, Shammua and Abishag).

To help out, below is my contribution to the cause. It’s a list of over 170 biblical names that have, over the years, often been used in the US. Following each name is its designation for males or females, its meaning (if it’s known), and some of the more well-known people (or in a few cases, places) in the Bible with that name.

By the way, this list makes up an appendix to Putting Words in Our Mouths: A Look at Biblical Expressions in American English. I started in Genesis, and I’ve made it through Revelation, explaining over 150 entries along the way. If you haven’t already, please drop by. You’ll probably be surprised at how often we quote the Bible without even knowing it.

So from Aaron to Zachariah, here we go. (Sorry, Zuriel didn’t quite make the cut.)

Aaron (m), possibly “teacher, lofty, mountain of strength”—Moses’ brother, first high priest

Abigail (f), “father’s joy”—King David’s wife

Abraham (m), “father of a great multitude”—father of the Hebrew people

Adam (m), “earthy, red, human”—the first man

Alexander (m), “defender of man”—member of the Jewish ruling council; man expelled from the church

Amos (m), “carried, burden, weighty”—Old Testament prophet who wrote the Book of Amos

Andrew (m), “manly, strong man”—Jesus’ apostle

Anna (f), “grace”—New Testament prophetess

Bartholomew (m), “son of Tolmai”—Jesus’ apostle

Benjamin (m), “son of the right hand”—Jacob’s son

Bethany (f), “house of dates, house of misery”—village east of Jerusalem

Caleb (m), “dog”—one of the Israelite spies sent to bring back a report about Canaan

Candace (f) possibly “one who is contrite”—queen of Ethiopia

Claudia (f) possibly “lame”—follower of Jesus in Rome

Dan (m), “judge, judgment”—son of Jacob

Daniel (m), “judgment of God” —Old Testament prophet and writer of the Book of Daniel

David (m), “beloved”—king of Israel who wrote many of the Psalms

Deborah (f), “bee”—nurse of Rebekah, Isaac’s wife; prophetess and judge of Israel

Eli (m), “lifting up”—Old Testament high priest

Elisabeth (Elizabeth) (f), “God is her oath”—John the Baptist’s mother

Ethan (m), “enduring, strong”—descendant of Judah; descendant of Levi

Eve (f), possibly “life, giver of life”—first woman

Gabriel (m), “God is my strength, champion of God”—angel

Hannah (f), “grace”—mother of Samuel, the Old Testament prophet

Isaac (m), “laughter”—Abraham’s son

Jacob (m), “one who grabs the heel, supplanter, deceiver“—son of Isaac, father of the Israelites

James (m), “supplanter”—Jesus’ apostle, brother of John; Jesus’ apostle, son of Alphaeus; Jesus’ brother and writer of the Book of James

Jared (m), “descent”—ancestor of Noah

Jason (m), “one who heals”—Thessalonian Christian; Paul’s relative

Jeremiah (m) “raised up by God”—Old Testament prophet who wrote the Book of Jeremiah and Lamentations (and possibly 1 and 2 Kings); Old Testament priest

Jesse (f/m) possibly “gift, wealthy”—King David’s father

Joel (m), “the Lord is his God”—Old Testament prophet who wrote the Book of Joel

Joanna (f) “the Lord’s grace”—manager of King Herod’s household and follower of Jesus

John (m), “the Lord’s grace”—”John the Baptist,” prophet who announced the arrival of Jesus and baptized him; Jesus’ apostle and writer of the Gospel of John, Revelation,  and 1, 2, and 3 John; “John Mark,” companion of Paul and Barnabas, writer of the Gospel of Mark

Jonathan (m), “the Lord’s gift”—son of King Saul and friend of David

Jordan (m/f), “descender”—river in Israel

Joseph (m), “increase”—Jacob’s son who was sold as a slave by his brothers and who gained great authority in Egypt; husband of Mary, Jesus’ mother; Jesus’ brother; “Joseph of Arimathea” in whose grave Jesus was buried; one of two Christians presented as possible replacements for Judas as an apostle

Joshua (m), “the Lord saves”—leader of the Israelites after Moses died, writer of the Book of Joshua

Judith (f), “of Judea”—Esau’s wife

Julia (f), “downy, soft hair”—Christian in Rome

Leah (f), possibly “weary”—Jacob’s wife

Lois (f), possibly “better”—grandmother of Timothy, who was Paul’s companion

Luke (m), “light giving”—a physician and Paul’s companion who wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts

Lydia (f), possibly “woman of the province of Lydia”—the first European to become a Christian

Mark (Marcus) (m), possibly “polite, shining”—companion of Paul, Barnabas, and Peter and writer of the Gospel of Mark

Martha (f), “lady, bitterness”—sister of Mary and Lazarus

Mary (f), possibly “rebellion”—Jesus’ mother; Martha and Lazarus’ sister who anointed Jesus feet with perfume; “Mary Magdalene,” follower of Jesus who was first to see him after the resurrection

Matthew (m), “gift of God”—Jesus’ apostle who wrote the Gospel of Matthew

Micah (m), “who is like God?”—Old Testament prophet and writer of the Book of Micah

Michael (m), “who is like God?”—angel

Miriam (f), possibly “rebellion”—Moses’ sister

Moriah (f)—possibly “chosen by the Lord”—region where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac; “Mount Moriah” where Solomon built the temple

Naomi (f), ”lovable, my delight”—mother-in-law of Ruth

Nathan (m), “gift, given”—Old Testament prophet

Nathaniel (Nathanael) (m), “gift of God”—Jesus’ apostle

Nicolas (m), “conqueror of the people, victory of the people”—one of the seven chosen to serve the church in Jerusalem

Noah (m), possibly “rest” —man who built the ark and whose family was saved from the flood

Paul (m), “little”—Jesus’ apostle who wrote 13 books of the New Testament

Peter (m), “rock, stone”—Jesus’ apostle who wrote 1 and 2 Peter

Philip (m), “lover of horses”—Jesus’ apostle; one of the seven chosen to serve the church in Jerusalem

Rachel (f), “sheep, ewe”—Jacob’s wife and mother of Joseph and Benjamin

Rebekah (f), possibly “ensnarer”—Isaac’s wife and mother of Jacob and Esau

Ruth (f), possibly “friend”—non-Jewish woman who married Boaz and became an ancestor of Jesus, subject of Old Testament book named after her

Samuel (m), “heard of God, asked of God”—Old Testament judge and prophet, and possible writer of Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel

Sarah (f), “princess”—wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac

Seth (m), “compensation, a substitute”—son of Adam and Eve

Sharon (f), “a plain”—coastal plain in Israel

Simon (m), “he hears, hearing”—original name of Jesus’ apostle Peter; “Simon the Zealot,” Jesus’ apostle; Jesus’ brother; man who carried Jesus’ cross

Stephen (m), “crown”—one of the seven chosen to serve the church in Jerusalem, first Christian martyr

Tabitha (f), “gazelle”—Christian woman with a reputation for helping others, she died and Peter brought her back to life

Thomas (m), “twin”—Jesus’ apostle

Timothy (m), “honored by God, honoring God”—companion of Paul, who wrote 1 and 2 Timothy to him

Titus (m), “honorable”—companion of Paul, who wrote the Book of Titus to him

Zachariah (Zechariah) (m), “God remembered”—king of Israel; Old Testament prophet; father of John the Baptist

(Peter Hessler, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Harper, 2001)

[photo: “This is not my name,” by Jasper Visser, used under a Creative Commons license]

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