By Jacqueline J. Holness
Ever since I was a little girl, I was always fascinated with names, how people received their names, and the meanings behind their names. Even now, when I get bored and I’m sitting in an audience somewhere, I pull out a pen and a piece of paper and create names of various fictional families. But I’m not the only one who is fascinated by names. Judging by how many stories in the Bible are about how people received their names and the meanings behind them, I think God believes names are noteworthy as well.
First Things First
In the New Testament there is Saul of Tarsus, who once persecuted Christians as a Pharisee and later was known as Paul, a Roman name, once he began preaching the gospel to Gentiles. According to various sources, the name Paul means “little or small,” demonstrating Paul’s humility in Christ versus the proud stance he once had as persecutor of Christians.
In the Old Testament we find Isaac whose name means “laughter.” As could be expected, when God revealed to elderly couple Abraham and Sarah that they would become parents, Sarah’s response was laughter.
The account of how Naomi requested to be called Mara because “the Almighty has made my life very bitter” is a dramatic one, yet it ultimately has a happy ending.
There are many more stories about how and why various people in the Bible received their names and what their names meant for the course of their lives. Obviously God intends for us to take great care in choosing names.
As of April of this year, according to nameberry.com, the most popular name baby name for girls in 2016 is Olivia, which means “olive tree” in Latin. The biblical name Ezra, which is a Hebrew name meaning “help,” was the most popular baby name for boys at that date.
Male biblical names have historically translated to longer lives for black men, according to Michigan State University economist Lisa D. Cook, who coauthored a study on names for black men. These biblical names include Abe or Abraham, Elijah, Isaac, Isaiah, Israel, Moses, and Titus. Cook used 3 million death certificates from Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina ranging from 1802 to 1970 to research names. On average, black men with biblical names lived a year longer than black men with other names, according to a March 2016 story about the study on the school’s website. One reason why is that “men with these Old Testament names may have been held to a higher standard in academic and other activities, even implicitly, and had stronger family, church, or community ties,” theorized Cook, who has five generations of ministers in her own family.
Last But Not Least
While last names weren’t prevalent during biblical times, the importance of last names in our modern culture cannot be denied. A recent University of Missouri study on last names had some surprising results, according to Cory Koedel, an associate professor of economics and public policy, who coauthored the study. After sending 9,000 fictitious resumes to employers using last names that were likely to be deduced as coming from black, white, or Hispanic applicants, Koedel discovered that employers didn’t have a preference for a particular race or gender of the applicants. The survey results vary from an earlier similar survey by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, through which they demonstrated that black job applicants did not receive as many callbacks as other races. However, Koedel points out that unlike in his survey, the earlier survey used African-American sounding first names while the first names in his survey were more generic sounding.
Unfortunately middle names don’t seem to be as widely studied, although when people use their middle initials, it suggests intelligence, according to a 2014 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. When I decided to become a writer, I did think the name Jacqueline J. Holness sounded more distinguished, although in everyday life I’m just Jackie. If you’ve ever wondered what the “J” stands for in my name, wonder no more! The “J” is for Joy, and as this issue is devoted to the topic of joy and joyful memories, I thought it would be apropos to write about the importance of names in general and my name Joy specifically. I don’t often think about the fact that my middle name is Joy, but when I do remember, I am filled with joy. It is my favorite joyful memory.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service. Read more on her website (afterthealtarcall.com).