Baby Name of the Day: Caleb

by appellationmountain on June 30, 2011

Sable Puppies Image via Wikipedia

How can a Top 100 boys’ name borrowed from a faithful Biblical figure be so very controversial?

Thanks to Kelly for suggesting the surprisingly complex Caleb as our Baby Name of the Day.

You can borrow plenty of names from the animal kingdom, from subtle choices like Leo to more obvious choices like Fox or Wolf, Falcon or Bear.

But Dog is almost certainly off the table, unless by some chance you’re naming a bitsy bounty hunter. And therein lies the drama.

Caleb is a Hebrew name, and one possible origin is kalebh – dog or dog-like. Dissenters insist that such a thing cannot possibly be true, arguing for meanings like:

  • Servant of the Lord;
  • Loyal – sometimes linked back to a dog’s attributes;
  • Heart.

There are compelling reasons for the different origins, and a vast number of names have disputed roots. (Hebrew is traditionally written without vowels, which really muddies the issue.) But I can’t help note that many, many of the voices seeking a different meaning for Caleb are the parents of a Caleb – and they don’t like the idea that their youngster might be compared to a canine.

An awful lot of parents have a young Caleb. The name faded in the nineteenth century, falling towards obscurity in the middle of the twentieth century. He made a comeback in the 1960s, climbing steadily. By 1989, he was in the Top 100. He peaked at #31 in 2009, and wobbled just a bit to #33 last year. But any way you count, that’s nearly 110,000 Calebs born in the past decade alone.

Caleb sat at the crossroads of two popular trends. He’s a Biblical boys’ name, like other favorites Joshua, Jacob, and Noah. But Caleb also boasts that popular -ay sound shared with Aiden and Jayden and other modern monikers. Little wonder he fared so well.

The original Caleb was one of the Old Testament faithful; he and Joshua were the only ones to enter Canaan after the Hebrews spent their forty years in the desert. There’s at least one other Caleb in the Bible, and he appears in the Koran, too.

As Caleb climbed, he showed up in plenty of places:

  • John Steinbeck gave the name to one of the brothers in his 1952 novel East of Eden, but for the film adaptation he became Cal;
  • Caleb is among the seven brothers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (He marries Ruth.) The 1954 movie led to a 1982 television series, but they changed Caleb’s name to Crane;
  • Anne Tyler’s 1975 novel Searching for Caleb is an enduring story about the Peck family;
  • As The World Turns introduced a character named Caleb Snyder in 1988, tipping Caleb into the Top 100;
  • There was also a Caleb on The Young and the RestlessCane Ashby’s evil twin;
  • Caleb is the youngest child in Patricia’s MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall. One of the sequels is called Caleb’s Story;
  • Indie rock band Kings of Leon includes frontman Caleb Followill;
  • Actress Julianne Moore has a son called Caleb.

Before there were soap operas and movies and popular novels, Caleb had a good run in the Colonial and Early American era. All of this makes Caleb terribly attractive, and fits right in with plenty of great names, like Ethan and Nathaniel. He’s still a great option if you don’t mind sharing him – and aren’t troubled by the possible associations with the four-legged set!

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