From John and Mary to Jacob and Hannah, the Christian Bible has been a bedrock source of English baby names. But the familiar names represent only a small fraction of the thousands of named people in the Bible. Last year, one of the overlooked biblical names made its first-ever appearance in American baby name statistics. The name: Amnon.
In case the text of 2 Samuel 13 isn’t fresh in your mind, here’s a summary.
The Story of Amnon
Amnon was the eldest son and heir of King David. His brother Absalom, another son of David by a different mother, had a beautiful sister named Tamar. [Tamar’s exact relationship to Amnon isn’t clear from the text, but most interpretations call them half-siblings. They refer to each other as “sister” and “brother.”]
Amnon developed an obsessive, forbidden love and lust for Tamar. He pretended to be ill in order to lure her into his bedchamber to bring him food, then tried to force her into his bed. She begged him to stop, telling him it was against the ways of Israel and would disgrace them both. She even suggested that if Amnon asked the King he would grant permission for Amnon to marry her properly. But Amnon was stronger than Tamar. He overpowered her and raped her.
After the attack, Amnon turned against Tamar with loathing and threw her out of his house. Again she begged for his mercy, saying that casting her out in shame was an even greater wrong than he had already perpetrated against her. But Amnon just told his servants to lock the door behind her.
When King David learned of this he was angry but did nothing. Tamar’s brother Absalom also remained silent…at first. Then after two years of quiet rage, Absalom plotted to get Amnon drunk at a feast and then have him murdered.
Given that appalling history, it’s no surprise that Amnon hasn’t been a popular baby name inspiration over the millennia. What’s intriguing is the name’s recent emergence, along with other names from old but unsavory sources.
A top-10 list of names based on biblical villains and monsters tells the tale. Compare the number of babies receiving each of these names over the past decade, 2012-2021, vs. the period a century before, 1912-21—an era that took a far more traditional approach to baby names.
|NAME||BABIES 1912-1921||BABIES 2012-2021|
|Abaddon (destroyer, abyss)||–||8|
|Goliath (enemy giant)||–||38|
|Jephthah (sacrificed daughter)||–||17|
|Jezebel (idolatry, murder)||–||217|
|Leviathan (sea monster)||–||486|
The Bible may be the bedrock of “traditional” naming, but this biblical lineup is decidedly modern.
The trend toward nefarious names isn’t limited to the Bible. The top debuting name of last year was Namaari, the antagonist in a Disney movie. The villain of the superhero series WandaVision inspired more namesakes than the show’s heroes did.
Yet virtue is the whole reason that biblical names became the bedrock of Western naming to begin with. Parents named children after biblical heroes to provide inspiring role models for a righteous life. Faith still fuels the popularity of Bible names, yet it’s hard to argue for Cain or Judas as role models. Maybe it’s time to talk about what “traditional names” really means.
The New Traditional
Tradition can refer to the naming process, which depending on your culture might involve asking the lama to name your baby or checking the date on the calendar of saints. It could mean naming children after their grandparents, or simply choosing from the same pool of classic names that your family and community have used across the generations. When parents talk about traditional names today, though, they usually mean something else.
Like every aspect of modern baby naming, “traditional” now focuses on style. A name is considered traditional if it isn’t “made up.” Upon hearing the name, you know that it has deep roots.
American parents keep casting broader nets to find names that fit this concept of tradition but also satisfy their taste for the fresh and unusual. This dual goal has created the seeming oxymoron of brand-new traditional names. Last year, parents unearthed classical names like Endymion, Regulus, Oleander and Saturn, raising them into the official US name stats for the first time.
Like Leviathan and Jezebel, the classical names are age-old with stories behind them. They’re traditional as characters and concepts—but not as baby names. The very fact that they’re not familiar as human names is the key to their stylistic impact.
When you think of a name as traditional, ask yourself “which tradition is it following?” The question goes beyond just knowing the name’s source. Names have their own history and culture; their own traditions. Amnon and David may have been close kin in the Bible, but as baby names the traditions they represent are worlds apart.