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Name Spotlight: Zion

March 25, 2019 laurawattenberg No Comments

Name Spotlight: Zion

March 25, 2019 LauraWattenberg No Comments
Zion Williamson prepares to dunk
Zion Williamson. (Image: Keenan Hairston)

For college basketball fans, the “Name of the Year” is already decided. Duke freshman Zion Williamson is being called the best college player of his generation, and his charismatic first name is poised to become a marketing sensation. But the name Zion had a story of its own long before Williamson took the NCAA by storm. It’s a story that reflects the many and powerful faces of the word Zion. Here are a few highlights of what Zion can be:

A place. In the Bible, Zion is the hill where the city of David was built. At various times the place name has been used to refer to different hills around Jerusalem, to Jerusalem itself, and by extension to the entire land of Israel.

A movement. The term Zionism has been applied since the late 19th century to the movement to re-establish a Jewish homeland in the biblical land of Israel.

A faith. Zionist churches are a group of Christian denominations, based largely in Africa, which integrate traditional African beliefs into Christian worship.

An afterlife. In elements of Christian and Jewish theology, Zion can refer to “the heavenly Jerusalem” and the world to come.

A future. In Latter Day Saints theology, Zion means “the pure in heart” and refers to a future earthly utopian unity of the righteous, as well as the New Jerusalem in Missouri which will be its center.

An ideal. In Rastafari Zion is the idyllic place of peace and freedom, the antithesis of the materialistic oppression of Babylon, the land of exile. The term can also refer to Africa, or more specifically to Ethiopia.

The one thing Zion was not, traditionally, was a baby name. (BenZion, “son of Zion,” was an occasional Hebrew name, but seldom just Zion.) The Rastafarian vision of Zion was first to change that in the United States. Starting in the early 1970s, the growing global popularity of reggae music led to the spread of elements of Rasta faith and culture. The name Zion became a rare but steady presence in American baby name statistics.

Then in the late 1990s, two cultural events sent the name to a new level.

  • In 1997, singer Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley, son of reggae legend Bob Marley, named their first son Zion. The next year Hill released her seminal album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, featuring a song called “To Zion” which interwove imagery of her young son and the inspirational destination of Zion.
  • The 1999 film The Matrix featured a city of Zion that was the last place of genuine humanity in an apocalyptic machine-dominated landscape. The film borrowed from both Rasta and Christian visions of Zion, presenting the city as a promised land, a City of God, and a dream of freedom notably dominated by people of color. Subsequent movies in the Matrix series made an Afrocentric Zion an even greater focus.

In a culture where baby naming was turning increasingly adventurous and Z was a hot letter, parents took notice. Here is a 50-year view of the baby name Zion.

Graph showing sharp rise in babies names Zion

The name has been primarily African-American, as you might expect from the cultural sparks that ignited its popularity. Of the smaller number of white parents who have named children Zion, a high percentage are individuals who have built their lives around faith, including ministers and religious writers and advisers.

The spotlight on Zion Williamson, born in 2000, marks a turning point. The past inspirations for the name Zion have all been closely linked to a cultural or spiritual concept. If Williamson triggers a new sports-focused wave of baby Zions—a sure thing, in my opinion—the name will take a giant step away from its word roots, toward the realm of names perceived first and foremost as names.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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