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!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Desiree June 26, 2012 at 7:58 PM

Caleb does not mean “dog” – it’s a misinterpretation.

Many name books / websites list the meaning of CALEB as “Dog”. However, a simple look in a Hebrew / English dctionary one will see that “dog” in Hebrew is CELEB, not CALEB. **Note** the first vowel is different.

CALEB is actually a compound word in Hebrew – something that is quite common in ancient Hebrew. Col (Cuf + Lamed) = all or whole. Lev (Lamed + Vet) = heart. Therefore, CALEB (or COLEV as pronounced in Hebrew) actually means “whole hearted”.

Faithful could be another translation. However, if you read in the Hebrew Bible the exploits of CALEB (as in one of the twelve spies who went into Caanan Numbers 13:6 & 13:30), one will see that he wasn’t simply faithful, but that he served the God of ISRAEL with his whole heart. IE: He was the first to speak up and say, “let’s go and conquer this land,” (paraphrased). It wasn’t JOSHUA (the leader of the 12 spies), but CALEB who was encouraging Israel to follow God inspite of the opposition from the other 10 spies.

Therefore, the ancient meaning of CALEB is: “whole hearted”.

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appellationmountain July 2, 2011 at 1:42 PM

Kaylub? I don’t get it. Is Kailyp really the same name?

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SkyeRhyly July 1, 2011 at 4:56 PM

The weirdest spellings of this name i’ve seen are Kailyp and Kaylub.

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Sarah A June 30, 2011 at 12:54 PM

In many cultures, particularly Arab and South East Asian, the worst way you can insult someone is to call them a dog. So yeah, I can see how Caleb’s meaning is pretty controversial. I think Caleb is a nice enough name, but I’ve never considered it as all names ending in B are completely off the table for us.

If parents can get past the meaning, I think Caleb is a nice alternative to Jacob. Familiar, Biblical, that popular AY sound, etc. I think the nn Cal also sets it apart a bit. Jake is starting to sound a bit tired but Cal is pretty darn cool :)

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appellationmountain July 2, 2011 at 1:39 PM

I do like Cal for Caleb, and the James Dean angle gives it some serious appeal.

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Patricia June 30, 2011 at 12:16 PM

I can’t get past the meaning of the name, nor could family members when the name was considered a couple of times. Oxford Dictionary of First Names: “…apparently derived from the word for ‘dog’ in Hebrew, is said in some traditions to symbolize devotion to
God.” (Last part of that is very positive.) Penguin Ref. Dict. of First Names: “…variously interpreted as meaning ‘intrepid’, ‘bold’ or ‘dog’ (presumably intended to suggest a doglike devotion to God).” The Great Big Book of Baby Names (by President of American Name Society): “Hebrew ‘kalebh, “dog”.”

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Julie June 30, 2011 at 10:25 AM

What are little boys made of
Snips & snails & puppy dogs tails…

I actually like the meaning and it’s no secret I’m an big animal enthusiast. I’ve never understood why it’s ok for a name to mean wolf, raven or deer, but it’s not acceptable if means dog.

I think I know more Calebs than Jacobs… Caleb falls in the same category as Eli and Noah, if the name wasn’t SOOO popular I’d consider it.

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C in DC June 30, 2011 at 9:53 AM

I think part of Caleb’s appeal is that it’s similar to Jacob, but not nearly as popular. I know that I thought about using it, until I realized just how high it was climbing. I only know one Caleb IRL.

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Lola June 30, 2011 at 7:35 AM

Indeed, My family just adores dogs, while I’m the lone cat lover! But yeah, Caleb’s general meaning doesn’t bother me overmuch but seems odd with our existing kids (I use kids lightly, Leo & Simon will be 25 on July 5).

I like the name and recommend it to a lot of people, it’s just not for me. :)

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K. M. Sheard June 30, 2011 at 6:10 AM

I agree with waltzingmorethanmatilda. In some cultures and times, dogs have been highly valued and respected, and ‘dog’ was regarded as a good element to feature in a name. The Celts in particular regarded the dog in a positive light, and a number of Celtic names include the element, from the magnificent mythological C

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waltzingmorethanmatilda June 30, 2011 at 9:44 PM

That’s what I wondered too! Then again, I saw on a fairly trustworthy name site that a particular name from the Bible means “God has vomited”. I can only assume that in times past, people didn’t consider the meaning of names at all when choosing or even creating baby names.

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Lou@Mer de Noms June 30, 2011 at 3:37 AM

Meh, I think that once you get high enough in the popularity charts most names are no longer picked solely for their meaning, and m,any who use the name are unaware of said meaning, they just pcik it because they’ve heard it alot, and decided they liked it. either way, I kind of like Caleb.

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waltzingmorethanmatilda June 30, 2011 at 3:22 AM

I like the sound of this name, and I don’t really see why “dog” is a problem – don’t we all love dogs? Are they not our best friends? Aren’t they handsome, intelligent, loyal and affectionate creatures?

The name Collin can mean “whelp” or “young dog” … but I prefer Caleb to Collin.

It reminds me of Caliban (Caleb-an), but that doesn’t bother me as I always felt great sympathy for Caliban; he was, so to speak … the “underdog”! ;)

As it was picked for an evil twin, maybe some other people also see a touch of darkness in this name.

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appellationmountain June 30, 2011 at 8:19 AM

There was also a bad guy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer named Caleb, and I keep thinking it was in another horror movie – Children of the Corn, maybe? – but I can’t figure that one out.

Honestly, I’ve never thought Caleb = dog was a problem, either. But it pops up on message board after message board, so I do think parents choose the name because the like the sound, then are upset by the possible meaning.

I enjoy learning about the meanings of names, but I’m not vexed if they’re negative. I’m far more likely to veto a name because a person or character who wore the name is unappealing. And, of course, that can happen after the fact, too.

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waltzingmorethanmatilda June 30, 2011 at 9:41 PM

Hmm, yeah, now I’m thinking there’s a REASON I see this as the name for someone who’s a little on the dark side – writers keep making it sound that way!!!!

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Charlotte Vera June 30, 2011 at 2:39 AM

As with most people I know many, many Calebs. It’s a fine name, but I’m one of those who just can’t envision herself calling a child “dog”.

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Catherine June 30, 2011 at 2:22 AM

One of my cousin’s named his son Caleb. Other cousins’ offspring include Judah, Micah, Miriam, Elias and Jacob. I have 9 cousins and 1 sibling so the pool of babies gives me a random selection of names since there’s also a Siri [to honor Scandinavian heritage], Stephanie, Katie, Holly, Reese and Floyd. Also Faith, Anne and Emily.

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appellationmountain July 2, 2011 at 1:36 PM

What wonderful names! I love Miriam.

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