Home February 2012 What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Several of our friends are engaged in the nerve-wracking rite of picking a name for their unborn babies.
While celebs might look no further than the produce aisle for their progeny’s monikers, Jews take the name game very seriously.  To us, names describe the very essence of a person and our aspirations for his or her character, intelligence and grace.
So it’s a wonder that so many of our names come from the Bible.  The Bible is chock full of thieves, murderers and liars – and those are just the heroes.  But for centuries, we’ve been using the Torah as a baby name book, saddling our kids with the handles of our less-than-perfect matriarchs and patriarchs.
According to some dubious site somewhere on the Internet (Mayrav is Hebrew for “lazy researcher”), only about 5 percent of the names from the Hebrew Bible are still in use today.  But those names cover a lot of people.  Hit up any daycare in the U.S., and the roster is likely to read: Jacob, Ethan, Michael, Noah, Daniel, Abigail and Ava – the most popular names in the U.S. for several years running.
Granted, Jacob was a pretty good guy (despite some parenting and sibling challenges), and Michael was literally an angel; but even Cain and his dearly departed brother Abel sneak into the rankings of 1,000 most popular baby names to this day.  By contrast, the name Bernard hasn’t cracked the top 1,000 names in the U.S. since 2008, when it was ranked 943 – and I don’t imagine the Bernie Madoff scandal will help bring it back from obscurity.
In fact, once non-Biblical names have been sullied (O.J. and Adolf come to mind), they quickly disappear from delivery rooms.  After more than a decade in the top 100, the popularity of “Monica” dropped faster than a stained blue dress between 1997 and 1998.
So why do Biblical names persist?  One reason, of course, might be that the characters in the Bible weren’t either all good or all bad – making for realistic role models.  More likely, though, or people simply don’t care.  Yeah, “Job” means “persecuted,” but it sounds pretty cool.
I’ve been lobbying my pregnant friends to really think it through before they lay a name on their kids.  As much as I’d have to bite my tongue if any of them named their children Pear or Chewbacca, it would be a lot worse for them to commit little Onan or Jezebel to lifelong embarrassment.
Naturally, my recent conversations got me curious about my own Biblical namesake (Mayrav is also Hebrew for “hopelessly narcissistic”).  My mother always told me that they picked my name because my father liked the sound of it.  “Such a pretty name,” he said.
The most I ever knew about Merab, as she was known in the Torah, was that she was King Saul’s first daughter.  What I didn’t know until recently was that the best thing that could be said about the first Jewish princess was that an untimely death spared her having to witness her five sons being hanged and left to rot for six months in a retribution killing ordered by David, her ex-fiance-turned-brother-in-law.
Yeah.  Such a pretty name.

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