Baby Name of the Day: Ishmael


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Photo by me and the sysop via Flickr

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.

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13 Comments

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. 🙂

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. 🙂

I love this name, either the Ishmael or Ismael spelling. But I can just imagine a son of mine using the “Call me Ishmael” line with a certain swagger to pick up girls in bars..

My great-grandfather changed his name TO Ishmael when he became an adult. At this point, no one knows what his given name was. We mostly laugh about this as we think it’s a pretty out-there choice. His wife’s name? Myrtle.

oof.. I do think you are right that this is a religious and literary “heavy hitter”. Just hearing it makes me think of a very serious person in grey wearing the name. Does that even make sense? I think this name is very heavy for some reason.

Thank you, Abby for digging up the religious root of the name. I really do love Ishmael, but I’m afraid I don’t have the religious background to properly bestow the name on a future son. Ismael is a lovely alternative, but it is widely used by the Mexican-American community – which I am part of, but I’m looking for something a little more unique, and of course, something that is a reflection of my heritage. Oh, how I wish I could use Ishmael, but I suppose a girl can dream.

Oh! If it interests anyone to know, where I’m from, Smiley is a common nickname for Ismael.

I have both Ishmael and Ismael on our lists and I can’t decide which I prefer. The Arabic spelling of Ismail isn’t really that appealing to me. I love that the name is a “Biblical heavy hitter” without being Hezekiah. Too bad DH will probably never go for it, as the Arabic pronunciation doesn’t roll off his tongue and he’s not fond of the ‘ish’ sound.

Oh, even though I didn’t like it, the name Ishmael comes up in the film “The House of Sand and Fog” about an Iranian-American family. The teenage boy’s name is Ismail and when people try to call him Ishmael it prompts him to assert his Muslim identity and declare that his name is pronounced Ismail and not Ishmael.

I think people will forever associate this name with Moby Dick, even if they haven’t read the book (I haven’t) or even know where the whole “Call me Ishmael” thing comes from. I think Ismael is nice, and I really like the way it sounds. I have to agree with Julie-I don’t think Ishmael would fly in Minnesota or here in Nebraska. I can see it working more in the more liberal enclaves on the coasts. We are too conservative here in the Midwest.

I’m not sure about elsewhere, but I can’t see Ishmael taking off in Minnesota. In the stereotypical “Fargo” accent you’ll hear people here say the expressions Uff da (Whew! Too much!), Fy da (For shame!) and Ish da (Nasty, yuck!). If you listen to the Prairie Home Companion, they use these a lot when doing jokes about old Scandinavians.

While I don’t usually say uff da or fy da, I do say Ish or Ish da when something is gross (a diaper blowout comes to mind.)

We still use those expressions here is Norway, Uff da (or justt Uff) for when something is unfortunate/sad, Fy da less, mostly just Fy! when someone does something they’re not supposed to, and Ish da for nasty things, also real pickes you don’t know how to get out of. Although Ish would be spelled Isj her, and