Want to start a fight? Choose this surname for your son.

Thanks to Photoquilty for suggesting Cohen as Name of the Day.

With kids answering to names like Riley and Madison, it might be hard to see why Cohen courts controversy.


As Nameberry’s Pamela Redmond Satran wrote in her Daily Beast article last May, Cohen isn’t just any surname. It’s from the Hebrew kohen – priest. That’s more than an etymology. The Kohanim are considered direct descendants of Aaron, big brother to Moses and first High Priest of the Israelites. For generations, the Kohanim performed specific duties and formed a priestly class within Judaism. Even today, you’ll find communities where the Kohanim observe specific rules and receive certain privileges in return. Lest you think that’s just an old tradition, it turns out that genetic testing bears out the idea that the Kohanim share a common ancestry.

Not every Kohanim is a Cohen and not every Cohen is a priest. Names like Kaplan, Conklin, Kahn, Coen, Kogan, Cahen and Caen have all been used as equivalents. George M. Cohan was Irish Catholic. Koen is a diminutive for the Dutch and German equivalents of Conrad. It’s perfectly possible to argue that your boy Cohen has nuthin’ to do with the Torah.

Plenty of parents do. In 2004, Cohen entered the US Top 1000 at #650. By 2008, he stood at #356 – a quick climb. (Though even at #356, fewer than 1,000 newborns received the name.) Koen ranked #877 is 2008.

If you’re flipping through the phone book to find a baby name, Cohen seems like a logical companion to Carter, Carson and Cooper, as well as names like Colton and Cody. And, of course, all of those names and more are sometimes subject to respelling with a K. (I’m guessing that very few of the 238 Koens born last year are wearing the name as a nod to their German or Dutch heritage.)

Factor in our continued preference for two-syllable, ends-in-n names for boys, and Cohen was almost sure to surface. The Cohen family – including Adam Brody’s appealing character Seth Cohen – on TV’s The O.C. fueled his rise.

To complicate matters, plenty of popular choices are heavy with religious symbolism. Keeping company with Cohen in the US Top 1000 are:

  • Nevaeh (#34) and Heaven (#275), both for girls;
  • Trinity (#70 for girls), Genesis (#95 for girls) and Messiah (#704) for boys;
  • Zion (#699 for girls and #233 for boys).

That’s without considering virtue names, saints’ names and names culled from obscure Biblical figures. You could argue that calling your kid Messiah is a heavier burden than the possibly-priestly Cohen.

But why bother? If Cohen appeals, surely you could choose Colton or Nico or Colby or Kohl. (I’m a big fan of Crosby myself.)

Odds are that parents picking Cohen mean no disrespect by choosing the name. Some probably like the idea that their son’s name carries a religious connotation.

Assuming you’re reading this before signing Cohen on your child’s birth certificate in permanent marker, think twice. It seems unfair to your child to saddle him with a name that – rightly or not – will be viewed by some as an insult.

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. Wow. This was a heated debated back in the day. I named my son Cowen because I saw Cowan in an Irish baby name book and loved it. It is also the last name of a character in a Louis L’Amour novel–which is a plus. My husband loves the Coen brothers’ films, so he was on board. You can’t claim cultural appropriation for each and every spelling of a name that is found widely in many cultures. At most, you can claim inappropriate cultural appropriation for the spelling Cohen. Even then, I tend to feel a bit “get over it” about the whole thing. There are many things that are irksome in society. I wish the Book of Mormon Broadway play hadn’t been made–or viewed. I don’t like it when people refer to Joseph Smith as Joe Smith, because that is how the people who killed him referred to him even though he preferred to be called Joseph. I use that example to point out that of course names matter–but eventually some significance gets lost in the broader culture. It is okay. It still has meaning to those who understand it. For those of us who aren’t Roman Catholic, we’re not bad people when we think of the awesome spaghetti westerns when we hear the name Trinity. There are broad name usages and narrow name usages and it is okay to share the name in both. Let’s be less mine, mine, mine, and more venn diagram about these things. (Same goes for Dakota–it is the name of a state, so Native Americans don’t get to claim exclusive rights on the word anymore.)

      1. “Even then, I tend to feel a bit “get over it” about the whole thing. There are many things that are irksome in society.”

        Like people telling minority groups they aren’t part of to “get over it.”

        “Let’s be less mine, mine, mine, and more venn diagram about these things.”

        Why? What’s to be gained? Not multiculturalism, not tolerance, just none of those bothersome little complaints from minority groups, because how dare they.

        If people have the right to do whatever they like without regard to the feelings of others – surely those others get to feel however they want about it.

        People who want to do it can do it even though the affected group may find it crappy. But don’t ask the affected group to go one better and be the one side that has to care how the other feels. If you’re of the “baww no one cares how you feel” stance, own it. Tell the people who don’t like the negative reactions to get over that, too.

        “(Same goes for Dakota–it is the name of a state, so Native Americans don’t get to claim exclusive rights on the word anymore.)”

        Native Americans don’t get *anything* and they can’t be mad, right? You’re going to tell people to get over cultural appropriation, but you can’t get over people “claiming” their own language or even daring to be hurt/annoyed by callousness.

        how about you damn well get over Jews *or* Lakota having feelings you didn’t personally approve of. I hear there are many things that are irksome in society. Sit on it.

        1. Oh, this post … It makes me ache for parents who stumble on Cohen on a baby name list and think, “hey, that sounds great!” They choose the name, and then find this …

          I think Andrea’s point about the Venn diagram is actually a really helpful one. As I mentioned, all those years ago when I first wrote this post, it’s very possible to arrive at alternate spellings of this name through other means. Coen/Koen is a Dutch/German short form of Conrad, Cowan is an Irish surname with several possible origins – but one is an Irish saint, making this a likely choice for Catholic families – though not spelled Cohen.

          It’s very common for a name that we think of as one, single name to actually have multiple origins and meanings. In that sense, Cohen/Cowan/Koen isn’t any different than Kira/Chiara/Ciara – completely different origins and meanings, but the same sound. I don’t think we can ever assume, on just hearing the name, that the parents set out to insult or offend.

          And yet, the reality is that choosing Cohen or Dakota or a handful of other names can be perceived as insulting or offensive by others.

          It’s messy. It’s ugly. It’s painful.

          There are names that we can say, “Okay, parents, you should NOT do this. You should not name your child Lucifer, because even if you are not a person of faith, it will be burdensome for your child to introduce himself as Lucifer and watch eyebrows raise for the rest of his natural life.” I’m inclined to put Cohen in this category – even though it’s possible for many families to not understand why.

          But can I really put the Irish surname that sounds exactly the same in that category? Or the Dutch diminutive? I don’t see how. The argument is that Cohen’s meaning and origins should make it a protected name, and I think that’s perfectly fair. But that doesn’t apply to Cowan/Koen, does it?

          Native American names are an equally complicated subject. At least half of the US states have names derived from indigenous peoples, and at least six of those are used as children’s names in measurable numbers. That’s not counting tribal names, like Cheyenne. I can imagine someone thinking, “If we can use names like (the not-Native American) Boston or Carolina, why not Tennessee or Dakota?” To an outsider, it’s hard to see line. Or easy to imagine that they’re celebrating their roots as a proud resident of that state.

          (Which reminds me, I’ve since met someone from South Dakota, and he’s lovely. As is his family. I will now have to say, “I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone from Idaho.”)

          Anyway, I find myself thinking: how would I feel if a saint’s name became really trendy. Not a historical saint, one with a long history of use as a given name. Something like Kolbe, as in Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger at Auschwitz. I would find that … impossibly uncomfortable. I’d hear it called on the playground, and I’d wonder: do you know the story, or have just fallen in love with the sound?

          I don’t have any answers on this one, but I do think that there’s room for discussion, with these caveats: https://appellationmountain.net/peace-on-earth-good-will-towards-men/

          But it’s like the subject of “unisex” names – we very quickly stop talking about names, and transition to talking about world views – which is an intense subject, and difficult to handle well in an online forum. It’s just too darn easy to call each other racist and small-minded and insensitive and over-sensitive and dozens of other things that accurately reflect our feelings – but don’t exactly count as discussion.

          1. Talking about the legitimate reasons you love a problematic name is fine.

            To me, the “get over it, I’m irate at your offense” is the part that is racist. That is saying not only that you’re going to do what you want, but that no one else has a right to feel not-ok with it.

            It is easy to see how it can be done innocently, sure. But to be informed and decide that rather than a simple “I didn’t know that,” your going to go with being annoyed/offended that they feel that way? That’s highly problematic, and colonialistic.

            I’m not going off at everyone who likes the name, or even everyone who uses the name. Andrea posited that sure it may be cultural appropriation but the more important issue is she doesn’t think minority groups should get to decide how they feel about it. That that is “mine mine mine” and wrong. I don’t see how *that* is not racist.

  2. I’ve always wanted to name my son or daughter Cohen after the great musician Leonard Cohen. I would not do it now after discovering it would offend. It is my favourite name though. Leonard just isn’t the same 😉 I am Australian & at 27 I’m of the OC era…I would never of chosen it from that character. Leonard Cohen is very popular here in Australia, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the reasons it’s more popular here. Not that it’s an excuse but there is only a small Jewish population here, so most would be ignorant to its origins and wouldn’t have realized I would hope. I have many Jewish friends & have lived with Jewish families, but I didn’t realize myself. Anyway I’m pretty sure OC fans would be well aware there favourite character had a first name, to whoever claimed fans didn’t realize it’s a surname.

    1. To be clear, I meant that people who chose the name may not have realized. I’m aware that it doesn’t meant it’s ok to choose the name just because they don’t know any Jews 😉

  3. I live in central Texas, where the Jewish community is rather small in comparison to other parts of the country. I know a little GIRL named Cohen and I’m almost positive that her parents had NO IDEA what they were getting themselves into. I imagine theyd have chosen differently if they did. I think they might even be under the impression that they created the name. Almost any name can be translated somehow to mean something off-limits in another culture. I’m not saying its is right, I’m just saying that sometimes names can get “lost in translation” so to speak. If little girl Cohen’s parents were acquainted with Jewish culture I’m sure she’d have a different name. Since they simply aren’t familiar with the story, they had no idea what a bad idea it was. Now I’m off to google the snot out of my own kid’s names to make sure I didn’t inadvertently name them something sacred or taboo.

  4. This is how I feel about Dakota. Being a Lakota woman, it’s supremely offensive when i come across a Dakota. To add insult to injury, they’re usually white kids. But people don’t seem to mind, or even KNOW where the name comes from and what it represents. They don’t seem to care that it refers to the Dakota nation, and that it’s like naming your child England or France, or Switzerland (since I know people will argue you can use England and France as names). They do not care about the struggle that my genealogical cousins AND my ancestors have faced. They don’t care about the traditions of my people. And most of them have never met a native American, let alone someone from the Dakota nation. Indians are mythological creatures. Extinct. Assimilated.

    Probably in the same way Jews are perceived to be.

    1. I find the comparison to Dakota very apt. It is just a “cool-sounding” thing that happens to belong to a minority group many people feel comfortable not worrying about the reactions of or researching very much.

      There is no trend for naming kids Pope, despite the surname Pope existing and it “just” being a similar last name/occupational name. It’s understood naming your kid Pope Smith, or perhaps Pope Goldberg, would be a bit off.

      The Trinitys I’ve known have, like the Concepcions etc. been named by parents proud of their Christian faith. (Though different denominations there, in my experience) It’s rarely an act of cultural appropriation.

      For that matter, it’s not simply a “mine-mine-mine” issue where Jews resist the idea of non-Jews using “their” names, Jews don’t really use Kohen/Cohen/Kohanim (sure name yourself the plural who cares its all good sounds, right) either, as a first name. Because it’s a title, not a name. Using Aaron or Levi would be okay.

      That’s why I don’t mind Israel on non-Jews, and I have known some – it is a name, it always has been.

      I don’t really attribute malice to the use of Cohen. I do think it is insensitive, though, and uneducated. Similar to my feelings on Dakota, which I really liked at 14 but am glad I researched beyond “that does sound cool.”

      1. Josie,

        Sorry if I offended. I put examples of how Mormons get maligned to show that I understand how things can be sensitive. However, there’s a choice being made all the time to be offended or not. If someone chooses the name Dakota for a child, the chance that they are doing so to be offensive is minuscule. It is a lovely sounding word, the name of a state, with a very American feel. All of those things are okay for the namer to feel about the name. We can all choose to be a less easily offended part of a larger community and allow people the benefit of the doubt. Certainly I would hope that if a person is aware of the Cohen spelling being offensive that they would choose a different spelling, but most people aren’t aware so what is the point of being offended or critical? It isn’t an issue of silencing anyone, it is an issue of sharing cultural space.

        1. Andrea,

          I do not think it would be okay to be insensitive to Mormons, either. I would not knowingly do that, and if called on it for doing something I didn’t know what was wrong, I would view it as my responsibility to go “oh, sorry, I didn’t realize” and not only to apologize but also stop doing it.

          I’m genuinely sorry for what insensitivity you’ve received as a Mormon, and I don’t think you have to be okay with it.

          I don’t really see the point in struggling to be “less easily offended” though. Why? To me that’s laying spackle over culture because then we can all be bland together.

          Can we really be sharing cultural space when the dominant culture not only wins but calls others wrong for having feelings about what was stolen?

          I also don’t think things have to be intentional to be problematic. I’ve certainly accidentally done/said things. I don’t want to hurt people and just have them think ‘I can’t tell her.’ I want them to be able to tell me. Benefit of the doubt doesn’t work for me when it comes to racial/ethnic insensitivity – the unthinking nature of it is part of the problem.

          I can absolutely see the aesthetic value to the name Dakota. I think things like that can be non-maliciously inappropriate though, despite best intentions. And I don’t get the “it’s no longer exclusively theirs” argument, honestly. That’s like saying anything stolen is no longer the owner’s because, well, it got stolen already, (it’s all in the past, lol) and they might as well stop making others who bought stolen goods feel bad about it.

          That’s aside from the way Dakota doesn’t have the homonym issues Cohen does. It means a reference to that nation. The state is a reference to that nation, with an incredibly problematic history of treatment of that nation. It’s American feel is based on it being named for that nation. It’s not Swedish for ‘lovely’ or whatever.

          Amusingly, I have a deal with a Lakota friend of mine… I discourage anyone I see pondering Dakota as a name… and she’s got my back on Cohen. Is that sharing cultural space?

          take care sorry for writing a novel back here

          1. I understand what you are saying–I just don’t see it the same way. The word Dakota will always have a very particular and special meaning to someone of the Lakota tribe. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also have very special and different meaning for someone else. Venn diagram. Just because something is special to me doesn’t mean the same thing can’t be special in a different way to someone else. Or not special at all. How could we possibly go through everything in the larger culture and assign it out? The Jews get Cohen but the Irish get Cowan. If you have no Irish history than you’re not allowed to use it at all. I also don’t see how it is fair to tell someone who grew up in the Midwest their whole lives that they can’t have a special connection to the world Dakota. That’s just silly. It’s like the woman who was offended because I named my white child after Harriet Tubman. You can’t claim a national hero for just one race. Just because someone is part of a majority doesn’t make them wrong automatically or their culture and feelings wrong automatically.

          2. “I also don’t see how it is fair to tell someone who grew up in the Midwest their whole lives that they can’t have a special connection to the world Dakota. That’s just silly.”

            Why are you concerned for their feelings? Why aren’t *their* feelings silly? Why is their right to do whatever they want what cannot be critiqued?

            They can do what they want based on whatever heartwarming associations they have with anything. They don’t own anyone ELSE’S associations though.

            Is it fair? IDK. Is what you’re suggesting more fair? I don’t see how.

            “Just because someone is part of a majority doesn’t make them wrong automatically or their culture and feelings wrong automatically.”

            It does make their opinion on what is racist to a minority group they are not part of pretty worthless though. It also doesn’t automatically make them right.

            They can do as they like regardless but do not deserve to be able to silence others or insulate themselves from negative reactions.

            You’ve tied yourself up in a logical knot. You don’t want group A to be able to feel how they feel, because other people have other feelings and everyone is entitled to their feelings.

            …Except that group A. They should get over it. Other groups shouldn’t have to get over anything. Because they shouldn’t be dictated to by Group A. Group A can be dictated to, though. That’s okay. In fact, the idea that Group A might not be so hot on that idea is silly.

            I’m of the opinion people can do what they want, name-wise, but other people can think it exposes either ignorance or insensitivity.

  5. We named our son Coen – we love the name and are very happy with our decision. So far the feedback has been positive, although we have gotten a few ‘that’s different’. We purposely stayed away from Cohen because of the religious aspect. My husband is part German and we liked the fact it is a derivative of Conrad & it’s different – we also like short 4 letter names.

  6. Very interesting post – this is the first I’ve heard of parents naming boys “Cohen.” Just one small correction – the singular of the Hebrew is “Kohen” (pronounced Koh-hane, like Hanes), while the plural is “Kohanim” – so the first sentence of the second full paragraph should read, “Not every Kohen is a Cohen…”

  7. I knew a few Trinitys before it became trendy. The name didn’t bother me so much because both of them came from very devout Roman Catholic families, and they were both given the name for a reason. It is bothersome when somebody just uses it out of randomness, because they liked the sound, rather than any personal spiritual reasons. I think it has become more popular in recent years because of the Matrix. I think names with very strong religious connotations should be used cautiously.

  8. Photoquilty, I completely hear you. I just think this name is very disrespectful to Jewish people, especially if you are using it because you think its “cute.” Its almost like a non-Catholic, or anyone for that matter naming their son Catholic Priest because they think it would make an awesome name. Its just not right as a name. I can completely identify what Photoquilty is saying, and you just can’t compare the usage of Mackenzie to Cohen. Mackenzie does not have a religious significance to Scottish people. I do find Mackenzie a bit tacky as a first name, but it does not have the same offensive and sacrilegious overtones that Cohen has.