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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

May 13, 2013

What Is in a Name?

Every year, the U.S. Social Security Administration compiles a list of names that new parents gave their children that year, coming up with a top 10 and a top 20, and so on. The SSA just this week released the list of most popular names for 2012.

What is in a name? We all know that first names are meaningful and that parents choose them carefully. It is interesting to note how many parents choose biblical names or saints’ names whether they choose them for that reason or not.

Interestingly, more parents give their sons biblical or saints’ names than they give their daughters. Looking at the top twenty names for 2012, sixty percent of the boys’ names are also in the Bible: Jacob (1, most popular), Noah (4), Michael (8), Daniel (11), Matthew (12), Elijah (13), James (14), Benjamin (16), Joshua (17), Andrew (18), David (19), and Joseph (20). On the girls’ side, however, only two names are clearly biblical: Abigail (7) and Elizabeth (10). A little bit of research yields that Mia (8) is a nickname for Maria or Mary. Natalie (17) comes from the Italian word for Christ’s birth. Sophia (1) is the Greek word for Wisdom.

In the year that some of the current ninth grade students were born (1997), there were several biblical names in the top 10 of American boys’ names: Michael, Jacob, Matthew, Joshua, and Andrew. Fifty percent of the top 20 boys’ names in that year were biblical. For girls, however, things were a bit different. Only four names from the top 20 for girls in 1997—Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Rachel,—are biblical.

Here are a few activities you can do with your students around this information. * Give the list of names from a given year to the students and ask them to identify the biblical names. (You could also try doing this for saints’ names.) If you give lists from different decades, students can compare the use through recent history.

  • Verify whether your students’ names match the popularity assigned to them for the whole country. Why might the class reflect those trends and why might they be different?

  • How many students know why they have their names? Were any of the students named specifically for biblical characters or saints?

  • Why do students think that boys are more likely to have biblical names? Can students explain why “Jacob” has been in the top 20 names for boys for two decades?

  • Would your students name their own children after biblical figures or saints? Why or why not?

  • If your students have been confirmed, ask them how they chose their Confirmation name. If Confirmation is in the future, what kind of thought would they give to the name?

  • Do biblical and saints’ names play a role in evangelization?

  • The SSA also categorizes babies’ names by region. It might be interesting to see how your own region compares to another area of the country.

If you are interested in a complete list of over 10,000 biblical and saint names, check out a new release from Ave Maria Press, The Catholic Baby Name Book by Patrice Fagnant MacArthur.

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