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Looking for name that is both a literary and a Biblical heavy hitter?

Thanks to Marlene for suggesting one that fits the bill. Our Baby Name of the Day is Ishmael.

Ishmael has a distinctive sound, one that isn’t found in too many names. (Alicia and company are the glaring exception.) But the -ael ending is fairly common. Michael and Raphael both spring to mind, and other popular names, like Gabriel, Samuel, and Nathaniel are similar, too.

If not the sound, could it be the meaning? Nope. Ishmael comes from the Hebrew for God will hear, or maybe God has heard – and this child is the answer. After all, the Old Testament Ishmael is the much-longed for son of Abraham.

Oh, wait – maybe that is the problem. After all, Abraham has another son – Isaac – afterwards, and Isaac is the one who inherits, making Ishmael the also-ran, eventually sent away.

Depending on your history, Ishmael became the father of the Arabs, including eventually the prophet Muhammad, making him a big deal in Islam. He’s slightly less significant in Judaism – there’s speculation that Ishmael got the boot for living large, not just for offering a rival to Isaac.

But in Christianity, Ishmael seems to be largely synonymous with outcast, with emphasis on his dismissal. And this leads us to the most famous bearer of the name, the fictional narrator of Herman Melville’s classic fish tale Moby-Dick.

Published in 1851, Moby-Dick is the story of Captain Ahab and the whale he seeks. The narrator introduces himself with the memorable opening line “Call me Ishmael,” but we never learn if it is his real name. He’s highly educated and keenly aware that going to sea was a sort of self-imposed banishment, not unlike the Biblical figure. It’s led to speculation that the narrator’s phrasing “Call me …” was intentional, since he reveals little about himself.

The story’s success wasn’t enough to make American parents embrace Ishmael, though he’s long hovered at the edge of the Top 1000, making his most recent appearance in 1998.

The Spanish version of the name – Ismael tells a different story. Ismael ranked #362 in the US last year, a steadily used name. In Spain, Ismael was quite popular just a few years ago, and still hovers near the Top 50. He’s still on the rise in France, nearing the Top 100.

Ismael’s success might be attributed to Spanish or Islamic influence, though the ordinary spelling in most Arab languages is Ismail or sometimes Esmail, worn by rulers and politicians, athletes and actors.

All of this leaves Ishmael at sea. He sounds very religious, the kind of Old Testament appellation non-believing parents often avoid. But if you are looking for a name from the Judeo-Christian tradition, you’ll only use Ishmael if the story of his exile isn’t a concern – and that’s less likely. Ismael and Ismail have an appealing sound, but probably only work for families considering them as heritage choices.

A young adult novel and a work of philosophical fiction also bear the name, but they have not changed our perceptions.

And so Ishmael remains on his own. This makes him either the choice you’ve been looking for – the literary, Biblical name that isn’t as popular as Noah and Elijah – or one whose story puts him on the not-quite list.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Say what you want about Ismail but we, Keluarga Malaysia, are feeling lucky because a good leader named Ismail Sabri is now the 9th Prime Minister of Malaysia, in charge since 21 August 2021!

  2. I have come to embrace it. Truth be told, I was not to fond of it growing up with it…but now I really thank my parents for giving me that name. 🙂