Thanks to Meredith for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
MEANING OF THE NAME ZEN
In the United States, we tend to substitute “zen” for “calm.”
But this is no mere adjective. This is one of several names rich in spirituality and meaning. And it’s so much more than a synonym for chill.
Zen refers to a specific school of Buddhism. It first developed in China, where it was known as the Chan School. Chan comes from a Sanskrit word meaning thought or meditation. Followers seek tranquility as well as enlightenment.
The practice spread to Japan. The pronunciation of “chan” became “zen.”
Centuries of history follow.
ZEN’S JAPANESE ORIGIN
So the practice of Zen first developed in Japan. The word is sometimes translated into English as contemplation.
It’s safe to say that Zen wouldn’t have been in most Americans’ vocabulary before the late nineteenth century – and maybe not even then.
It would take a series of books that were only tangentially about philosophy and religion to introduce the concept to a wider audience.
And the first takes us to Japan during the 1920s.
ARCHERY and MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE
Way back in 1948, a German philosophy professor published a book titled Zen in the Art of Archery.
Eugen Herrigel had, indeed, studied a particular type of archery in Japan during the 1920s.
Technically it’s called kyūdō, and originated with samurai families. If you know your world history, you might recall that Japan had deliberately isolated itself until the 1850s. That’s when Commodore Perry’s expedition forcibly opened Japan to trade with the West.
So Herrigel described a world that wasn’t terribly familiar to his audience.
He described concepts we take for granted today. Muscle memory, for one. Flow state. And, of course, Zen.
Fast-forward to 1974, and Robert M. Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The era was very different. But if the title sounds familiar, it’s because Pirsig took inspiration directly from Herrigel.
The difference? While the first book was scholarly, Pirsig’s was (mostly) a work of fiction.
It also went on to become a mammoth success, spending years on bestseller lists. If you hadn’t heard the word zen before the book, chances are it was vaguely familiar now.
ZENO and ZENON
Or maybe Zen wasn’t entirely new.
It’s existed as a surname for ages. It some cases, it’s Chinese. But it can also come from a personal name: Zeno.
Zeno, along with Zenon, both come from Greek mythology. Zeus, king of the gods, inspired the name.
Two Greek philosophers answered to Zeno.
Saint Zeno lived sometime in the fourth century. The specifics of his life are lost to time, but he’s the patron saint of newborn babies, fishermen, and the city of Verona, Italy. A story attaches to each of those patronages.
If the saint is not exactly a household name today, it’s worth noting that both Zeno and Zenon persist as given names in other European languages, including Italian and Polish.
In some cases, the given name was shortened to the surname Zen.
Author Michael Dibdin created the character Aurelio Zen, first for 1988’s Ratking. While Dibdin was British, Detective Zen was very much Italian. He’d headline another ten books over the next twenty years. In 2011, Rufus Sewell starred in the title role for BBC’s Zen.
It’s a plausible surname, and might’ve raised Zen’s profile for some parents.
So how did Zen become a given name? Somehow the series doesn’t seem like the right explanation. Though, interestingly, both Aurelio and Zen debuted in the US Top 1000 during calendar year 2022.
BY the NUMBERS
The popularity of the baby name Zen is very recent phenomenon.
In 1969, five boys received the name, marking Zen’s debut as a boy’s name in the Social Security Administration (SSA) data.
It would by 1998 before five girls received the name, putting it on the girl’s name list for the very first time. That same year, 32 boys were named Zen.
It remained on the fringes, and it was, well … fringey.
A 1992 children’s novel called The Suitcase Kid used the names Zen and Crystal for the main character’s step-siblings. They were meant to be a bit out-there and New Age-y … even though Crystal had become a favorite in the 1980s.
As of 2010, the baby name Zen was still used in very small numbers – 13 girls and 60 boys.
In 2016, Zoe Saldana welcomed her third son, Zen, a brother for Bowie and Cy.
The name started to rise. By 2020, 48 girls and 160 boys received the name.
NICK CANNON’S FAMILY
And then came tragedy, the kind that puts a name on everyone’s mind.
Nick Cannon, the actor and television host, and partner Alyssa Scott welcomed a son in 2021. They named him Zen. Their son would live just five months, before losing a battle with cancer in December of that year.
Cannon has a large family – twelve children as of 2023, all with dramatic names. His candor about grieving his son’s death struck a nerve, commanding headlines and an outpouring of sympathy.
Perhaps this explains the uptick in the name’s use. As of 2022, 65 girls and 252 boys were given the baby name Zen. That’s enough to put it into the boys’ Top 1000 at #911.
THE RISE of BODHI
One more factor to consider: the baby name Bodhi.
1,112 baby boys were named Bodhi in 2022 alone. That’s not counting alternate spellings or longer forms, like Boden.
Spiritual names in general have fared well in recent years. And Bodhi, meaning enlightenment, is a favorite for this generation.
Chances are that the popularity of the name Zen owes a little something to Bodhi’s success. As of 2022, Bodhi ranks #301.
MEANINGFUL MINI NAME
The baby name Zen packs a lot of meaning and significance into just three letters. It’s potentially a perfect name for parents interested in the meaning and spiritual aspects of the name.
And Zen’s stylish sound is a bonus, another name in the same category as Kai and Zion.