Thanks to Melissa for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
In the Old Testament, Eli was a high priest of Israel, and mentor to Samuel.
His sons cashed in on their dad’s success, and things ended badly.
But the baby name Eli has been in use for generations, one of several Biblical choices parents embraced post-Reformation.
Two possible origins and meanings attach to the name. First, the baby name Eli might come from a Hebrew word meaning ascension.
But it’s also possible to get to Eli from a longer El- name, of which there are many.
ELIJAH, ELIEZER, ELIHU
Nearly all of the longer El- names for boys refer to God.
Elijah means “My God is Yahweh.” Eliezer translates to “My God is help.” And Elihu? That’s “My God is he.” Lots of El- names dot the Old Testament. Some Elis, then, take their name from a longer version.
Back to Elijah for a minute. It became Elias in many languages, and Elian in a few more. Elliot and Elliott started out as surnames, all derived from this same cluster of Eli names.
There’s something about the baby name Eli that feels tied to American history, or perhaps the scope of world history.
Elihu Yale funded the fledgling Connecticut university that now bears his name. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Whitney’s nephew, Eli Whitney Blake, also became a noted inventor. And Eli Lilly, chemist and entrepreneur, founded a pharmaceutical empire that still bears his name.
The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize went to Boston University professor, author, and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, born Eliezer.
BY the NUMBERS
The baby name Eli has never left the US Top 1000. It was a Top 200 favorite in the year 1880, the first year for which data is available. And it ranked #344 in 1980, a century later.
But something has happened in recent years. Since 2008, the baby name Eli has been a Top 100 pick in the US. As of 2020, it stood at #60 – a modest drop from a peak of #43 in 2012/13, but still a powerfully popular choice.
THE AGE OF ELS
What explains the surge in popularity?
The baby name Eli and all the El names for boys mirrors a trend on the girls’ side. Ellie names, from classics like Eleanor and Eliza to -elle enders like Annabelle and Gabrielle – have dominated girls’ names in recent decades.
It helps that we love mini names, especially vowel-forward ones. Just ask Leo and Kai and Levi.
The NFL’s quarterback Eli Manning – winner of two Super Bowls with the New York Giants – helped put the name on parents’ radar, too. After all, 2008 – the year the baby name Eli first cracked the US Top 100 – also marks the first time Manning led his team to defeat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Television characters have worn the name on Emmerdale, Veronica Mars, Lie to Me, Heroes, The Good Wife, and Xena, as well as the short-lived Eli Stone, a series about a lawyer who can see the future.
In 2010, Denzel Washington played a tough guy on a sacred mission in The Book of Eli. His Eli was charged with delivering the last copy of the Bible to safe keeping, despite an impressive number of bad guys in his path. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom gave us a villainous Eli.
MODERN MINI NAME
Despite ancient and storied roots, the baby name Eli feels fresh and modern. It’s very much at home in the twenty-first century.
Maybe it’s sound. Or maybe it’s because we instinctively recognize that Eli has at least as much history as John, but isn’t nearly as often heard.
If you’re looking for a strong name for a son, one that feels current but deeply rooted in tradition, compact and stylish Eli could be just the thing.
What do you think of the baby name Eli?
First published December 8, 2010, this post was substantially revised and updated on October 26, 2021.
I like Eli as you can see my name is Elyane. I am usually called Ellah. I like that Ell is becoming more female. My sister is named Ellis, my niece is named Ellias, and my cousin is named Ellyce. It stands out nicely in my family and yet is it not common.
Eli David is Ziva’s evil dad on NCIS, so that’s pretty much ruined the name for me (Ziva would be an interesting NOTD, BTW 😉 ). But Elian sounds nice.
I have a female cousin nicknamed Eli (short for Elicia), she pronounces it EE-lee rather than E-lye, but I could easily see Eli sliding over to the girl’s side. Mostly just as a “unique” spelling of Ellie, but the little girl vampire from “Let The Right One In” has also exposed an English-speaking audience to the Scandinavian girl’s name. The difference in pronunciation will probably keep Eli more this generation’s Jaime, than Ashley.
Despite my “prophecy” (and I hope I’m wrong,) I really like Eli, Elias and Elijah. If the El- names weren’t so popular I’d definitely consider them.
Julie, that’s true – and there a LOT of little Ellies right now. When the first bunch hits middle school, I’m sure some will morph from Ellie into Eli, just like my friends became Jenni-with-a-heart-dotting-the-I, thank-you-very-much.
The only Eli name I really like is Elian, but I would pronounce it EHL-ee-ahn, like Elliott. The Eli nickname wouldn’t really fit..El would be the likeliest nn.
To me, Eli is too spare, but Elian has the elegance of Julian or Roman. Not sure it would make my Top 10 list for boys, but it’s close.
Sarah A says
I like Eli okay, though he’s definitely not my favorite of the Old Testament names. I really prefer Elijah. I don’t know why, but Eli sounds too much like a cowboy’s name for me, despite his OT roots. It’s still a great name though!
Lady Gwyn says
I like Elijah, Elias, and Eleazer (I knew one who went by El), and I think Eli is a good nickname for all of these. Of those, I like Elias best, followed closely by Eleazer. I would use any of those in a heartbeat (as long as my future husband approves), but I wouldn’t use Eli on its own. I wouldn’t have a beef if someone did, though!
Emmy Jo says
Eli’s really nice. That was one of our misgivings about using Elliot or Elias (which were both considered for Julius) — the fact that “Eli-” names really are popping up everywhere.
Of course, there are plenty of other Judes and Julians, too, though.
It’s hard to pick a name that sounds fashionable but different — because chances are, if a name sounds fashionable, even if IT is not highly ranked, it probably has sounds in common with names that are fairly highly ranked.
That’s a VERY good point, Emmy Jo. It is obvious when we talk about Aidan/Jayden/Caiden, but equally true with other names. So many of my favorites – Clio and Avalon come to mind – are very close to Top 20 picks.
I went to high school with an Eleazar who mostly went by Eli. He was the only one I’d ever heard of until Eli Manning, then it seemed to start popping up everywhere. I’ve yet to meet another in real life, though.
I think it’s such a fantastic name. One of the best. I can’t believe it’s so popular, or the fact that I didn’t even realize it was so popular! It’s like every name I like is super popular, or so uncommon that everyone I know would call it crazy.
I think it’s a cute nickname, sounds happy. My favourite name that can give Eli as a nickname is Elisha. Looks sleak and elegant, yet it’s not overused.
I do like Elisha, and hey, works for Eli Manning!