Name of the Day: Omar

by appellationmountain on June 7, 2008

It’s been worn by religious figures, creative types and a poor boy from Missouri. Today, it’s the kind of name that works well for parents searching for a truly culture-spanning choice that is still familiar and accessible.

Thanks to Hugh, for taking today’s Name of the Day in a globetrotting direction with his suggestion: Omar.

Here’s an unexpected fact: Omar has been in the Top 1000 baby names given to newborn males just about every year since 1880. It has a far longer history than many so-called conventional masculine monikers like Kevin and Ian.

It’s both an Old Testament name, and more prominently, an Arabic one. There are also arguments that the name bears similarity to an old German name, but that’s the weakest of the origin claims.

In Arabic, the name means “flourishing” or “life” and is associated with Omar ibn al-Khattab, a companion of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Today, he is known in Sunni Islam as one of the “Four Rightly Guided Caliphs,” the men who succeeded Muhammad as cultural, spiritual and military leaders. From 634 to 644, Omar expanded the Islamic Empire, built dams and canals to increase the food supply and founded the city of Basra. Little wonder that Omar remains one of the most popular names in the Arab-speaking world.

In fact, the astonishing thing about Omar is how very, very popular it is globally. You’ll find Omars throughout Latin America and the US, as well as the Middle East. BabyNameMap counts it as a common name in Belgium and Sweden, as well as parts of Canada. As of 2007, it was the 131st most common name given to boys born in the US – and has been in use here for decades.

John and Sarah Bradley were living in a log cabin in Missouri at the end of the 19th century when they called their baby boy Omar Nelson Bradley. He went on to graduate from West Point and serve more than three decades in the US Army before becoming General of the Army and the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A few years later, the inventor Omar Knedlick was born on a farm in Barnes, Kansas. His contribution to the world? He created the Slurpee.

The popularity of the poet Omar Khayyám is often cited as a reason for the name’s enduring popularity. The humble appellations Virgil and Homer, after all, were once chosen in homage to the legendary poets of antiquity. Khayyám and his best-known work, The Rubáyiát, became familiar to Western audiences when they were translated into English in the mid-19th century. He’s been referenced by Oscar Wilde, Jack London and Salman Rushdie. He’s been quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. and jazz great Charlie Parker.

Today, Omar also conjures up an air of Hollywood glamour. Doctor Zhivago, anyone? The Egyptian-born Omar Sharif actually started out life as Michel. On the small screen, Omar Epps plays a doctor on House,a medical drama on Fox.

And there are no shortages of Omars on the playing fields, especially in baseball. Again, that’s the Latin American influence being felt in both the name and the sport. One common theory for Omar’s popularity is the Moorish influence on Spain, but evidence for this claim is in short supply.

Omar is a shape-shifter. It’s both sophisticated and cosmopolitan; tough and practical. If you’re searching for a name that defies easy categorization, Omar is a likely candidate. It’s at least as portable as John, and with far more style.

In fact, it brings to mind our earlier Name of the Day, Dante. They’re both good name choices for parents trying to honor more than one heritage.

Anyone met brothers called Omar and Dante? We’ll be on the lookout.

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