Name of the Day: James

by appellationmountain on January 7, 2009

It doesn’t get much more classic. This choice has been worn by saints, kings and a world famous fictional spy.

He’s also reader Kayt’s beautiful new baby boy, the inspiration for the Name of the Day: James.

James is truly never out of style. Since the US started collecting data on baby names, he is one of four choices to consistently rank in the Top Twenty. Of course, the rankings trace back to 1880, and James’ history is far more ancient.

Two of Jesus’ apostles were called James. More precisely, they were probably called Ya’aquov, a name that has spawned dozens of seemingly unrelated monikers. Today, the best known are James and Jacob.

The Hebrew name is usually said to mean supplanter – one who takes the place of someone else. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob is born holding his twin Esau’s heel, so you’ll sometimes find a definition related to the story. (As it happens, Jacob went on to supplant Esau in the Bible, too.)

Ya’aquov morphed into James and Jacob, but also Iago, Jago, Seamus, Hamish, Diego and Giacomo. In Latin, Ya’aquov became Iacobus. Pronunciation changed the name to Iacombus, and eventually the b was dropped entirely – Iacomus. The French took Jacobus and Jacomus and gave the English Jacques and James.

James is no longer heard in French, but he’s gained steadily in English ever since his introduction by the Normans. Popular saints inspired some parents. But it was King James’ ascension to the English throne in 1603 that cemented his use. The monarch’s moniker has remained popular ever since.

Jacob was once the preferred form for Jewish families. Today, Jacob and James are just as likely to attend the same house of worship – or even live in the same house. Brothers called Jake and Jamie are not uncommon.

Besides saints – I counted more than two dozen! – the name has been worn by kings of Scotland, England and Aragon and six presidents of the United States. (Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan, Garfield and Carter – more than any other given name, though the last is almost always known as Jimmy.)

Artists, authors, actors, aristocrats and athletes have all been called James. The name has was once downwardly mobile – James became a generic term for a driver in the late nineteenth century – but is so widely used that he escapes definition. For every Jimbo or Jim Bob, there’s an Ivy League James or a titled Jamie.

While plenty of girls have been called Jamie in recent years, fictional spy James Bond keeps the name undeniably masculine.

Some bearers of the name answer to Jim or Jimmy or Jamie. But James is increasingly used sans diminutive, a choice that feels surprisingly fresh and vibrant.

Jameson and Jamison put a surname spin on the appellation, and both also rank in the US Top 1000. But it is James that is unstoppable. He’s in the UK’s Top Ten and ranked #15 in the US last year.

There’s nothing unusual about James, but that’s his strength. He’s classic and enduring, and still completely current.

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