Biblical baby name Jonah brings to mind whales, but there’s so much more to this appealing choice.
Thanks to Annelise for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
OLD TESTAMENT ADVENTURE
The baby name Jonah brings to mind a faithful soul, holding a candle inside the cavernous interior of a whale.
It’s part Old Testament, part Finding Nemo.
It’s also flawed.
Because Jonah’s story is far more complicated. He has been aboard a ship, caught in a terrific storm. To appease an angry God, the sailors tossed him overboard.
What’s more, he deserved it. Jonah had boarded the ship to flee a commandment from God, and the storm was a punishment. After his dunking and three days’ journey in the belly of something ocean-going, he agreed to follow God’s directions. (For a while, anyhow.)
There’s a raging etymological and even zoological debate about Jonah’s whale. Some translations tell us that a “giant fish” or even a “sea monster” did the swallowing.
As for his given name, it comes the Hebrew Yonah, meaning dove or pigeon. It became Ionas in Greek, later evolved to Jonas and eventually lost the -s sound again. At least in some languages. Jonas remains the name of choice in German, Swedish, Norwegian, and plenty of other European languages.
The baby name Jonah feels something like Noah – richly symbolic, religiously significant, and yet broadly known beyond church doors.
The Biblical story has long been popular, especially in the Middle Ages. For that reasons, sailors considered the name unlucky.
In fact, the phrase “Davy Jones’ locker” may have evolved from the phrase “devil Jonah” or “duffy Jonah.” It means, of course, death and burial at sea.
Then again, there are other explanations for the phrase Davy Jones.
But it’s enough that even now you can find the baby name Jonah on lists of unlucky names.
While that seems like a superstition best left in the past, it does explain one thing: why this name was so little used in the US.
It barely ranked in the US Top 1000 in the late nineteenth century. The baby name Jonah appeared just a few times in the early 1900s, leaving the rankings entirely after 1911.
In 1969, a movie called 80 Steps to Jonah starred a young Wayne Newton as a criminal on the run. He hides out in a school for the blind. Newton also recorded the theme song, called both “My World” and “Jonah’s Theme.”
It was enough to push the baby name Jonah back into the US Top 1000 in 1970. From 44 births in 1969 to 161 in 1971, it’s clear the movie and song had an impact.
But the name remained relatively obscure. Just 225 boys were named Jonah in 1992, more than two decades later.
Then a year passed. And 1993, of course, marks the year that Sleepless in Seattle hit the big screen. The smash hit romance starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who fell in love thanks to the machinations of the adorable eight year-old son of Hanks’ character.
The son’s name? Jonah, of course.
The name skyrocketed in use. From #469 in 1993 to #197 in 1996, Jonah climbed steadily as the century drew to a close.
Of course Biblical boy names ending with a were starting their tremendous run. Noah, Elijah and Isaiah all appeared in the US Top 100 by 1996, and every one of them was on the upswing.
Along the way, notable Jonahs appeared.
There were some before the twenty-first century, of course. Jonah Sanford – senior and junior – were elected officials from New York state in the 1800s. Jazz trumpeter Jonah Jones – born Robert – is one, known for his work from the 1930s well into the 1970s.
Fictional figures included DC Comics’ Jonah Hex, introduced in the 1970s.
Add in athletes and other figures and the list becomes considerable.
But the best known bearer of the baby name Jonah right now? Almost certainly actor and comedian Jonah Hill, known for his roles in Knocked Up, Superbad, and Get Him to the Greek, as well as Oscar-nominated dramatic roles in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street.
BY THE NUMBERS
All of this has brought the baby name Jonah straight into the mainstream. It’s not nearly as common as Noah – or other Biblical boy names ending with -a and -ah. But it fits in nicely with so many J names for boys, from Joseph to Joshua.
The baby name Jonah peaked at #129 in 2012, and has since eased slightly. It sits at #141 as of 2019. But that’s not to say that Jonah has stalled out. On the contrary, we might be one high-profile use of the name away from the baby name Jonah making the US Top 100.
What do you think of the baby name Jonah?
Originally published on March 4, 2019, this post was revised substantially and re-posted on January 9, 2021.
This is one of my favorite names. I would totally use it.
Just found your blog and looked up this post. I have a Jonas who turned a year old last month. I’ve loved the name since I was a girl and read the book ‘The Giver’ by Lois Lowry. I also liked that it’s a top 10 name in Germany right now (my mom’s family is German) and has the not-so-overt Biblical connection. I’ve only ever had two people mention the Jonas Brother connection, and I was wondering if people still had an adverse reaction to the name three years out from this post.
🙂 Caitlin’s right, you should watch it. I love how politically incorrect it is!!
Caitlin – my cousin was in Year 12 last year and she actually got to STUDY Summer Heights High as part of her English curriculum? As much as I love Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice – Summer Heights High just sounds SO much better to study!
Caitlin B says
I think you MUST watch Summer Heights High. It is Australian, although I’m not! I’m a New Yorker. I watched the first season on HBO after Entourage. I couldn’t get enough. Jonah’s one of the best character’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. I think I heard there’s a second season, but I don’t know if HBO has aired/will be airing it.
Agh, why did I cancel HBO? Oh right … to get Sprout and Noggin. Oh well, guess I’ll wait for the DVDs on Netflix.
Caitlin, are you Australian by any chance? Summer Heights High 🙂 Bahaha I love it! It’s a little comedy in which one guy (Chris Lilley) plays all three of the title characters: Mr.G- an overenthusiastic and politically incorrect drama teacher; J’Amie (like Jzah-MAY) King- a stereotypical private school snob on exchange at a public school; and Jonah Takulua- a disruptive Tongan student. It’s quite amusing 🙂
ANYWAY, that is all Jonah reminds me of, that and the Jonas Brothers, and that actor from Knocked Up. So the name’s out for me. I’ve never really been fond of it though, ont for any reason.
Summer Heights High is on HBO… I’ve only seen a few minutes of it, but it’s supposed to be hilarious.
I like Jonah, I don’t love it, but I like it. A few years ago, this name definitely would have ranked high on my list. Now… Well, I just find it a bit blah I guess. Handsome, strong, Biblical… but not WOW to me.
Hey, this reminds me that I’ve been digging Joan as a middle name. How about exploring the somewhat staid Joan?
JNE, I know what you mean about the Jonas Bros. connection. (And I can’t even believe that I can name all three Jonas Bros. And that someday I will inevitably have to take my daughter to the next generation Jonas Bros. equivalent concert whilst the original JBs are filming their E!TrueHollywoodWhereAreTheyNowThirdReunion Special.)
And Nessa, I agree that Jonah Hill boosts the name for me!
My husband was almost Jonah! (Or Elliot. Or Patrick.)
Caitlin, I came across a reference to Summer Heights, but I’ve never seen it! Is it Australian? Should I be attempting to watch it online somewhere?
As for Joan, I’ve been thinking about Joan a lot lately, too. (And Photoqulity, dissent is a good thing!) I wonder if Joan is to Jane as Maud is to Matilda … Anyhow, she’ll be NotD on 5/4.
I like Jonah. Mostly it makes me think of Jonah Hill, and I think he’s hilarious. I thought about using this for a while, it’s too religious for me, though. But I do like it a lot.
I really like Jonah. I don’t think it sounds extremely religious, though I do like those names as well. Jonah’s rank is high enough that I believe it has most likely surpassed a strong Jewish association, much like Isaac. Ethan and Joshua were predominately Jewish at one point.
Caitlin B says
I don’t quite like Jonah. John, James, Joseph. I think those are the only male J names I like (actually I absolutely love all three). I don’t really know why, but most of the others sort of turn me off. Jeremy, Jason, Jacob, Jonathan, Joshua, &c. I feel like they’re all troublemakers, like they’re hiding something. I know that’s not entirely fair, but I’m a stereotyper!
One more namesake: Jonah Takalua of Summer Heights High fame! Love that show.
I’d prefer to get the similar sound from Jonathan.
My cousin is an American lving in Germany, with a German wife. They had a baby girl and named her Jona. I think this is similar to Noa. I’ve gotten used to it and have to say that I definitely like what they did; I like Jona for a girl, but heartily dislike Jonah for a boy. Jonas is evern worse, in my opinion.
(Am I always the voice of dissent?)
I quite like both Jonah and Jonas!
Jonah is OK. It kind of makes me think of the Jonas Brothers, which is not really the kind of association I go for. But overall, it’s an alright name – I definitely would not mind meeting a little Jonah.
Not always, Photoquilty, dear. 🙂 We agree where it really counts, generally. And let’s face it, if everyone liked every name, it would be a weird world indeed! Dissention is a good thing, I swear! (The USA wouldn’t exist without Dissention!)
I always thought God was pretty unfair to poor Jonah, locking him up ’til he agreed to do what God wanted. Really turned me off the dude for a long while. But then, that was the thinking of a not quite 6 year old and it took a bit more than that to turn me off completely.
Jonah’s really nice, actually. Handsome, soft but not weak and an easy sound. But then, I’ve been a sucker for Jo- names all my life. My first love is a 47 year old Joey (well, Joe to everyone else, Joey to me). Yes, we still talk. 🙂
Jonah’s got a breezy style that really feels current. Icould see him catching on and for me, that would be lovely. I’m really tired of Jacob (and please, no more Jake!). I signed Josie up for school this morning and actually ran into a small handful of kid she’ll be going to school with; Ria (girl), The Byron I’m always mentioning, a George, and a Jonas. Which rather surprised me, little Spanish looking Jonas. But I was pleasantly surprised to see the related Jonah today!
I do like him, perhaps not enough to use him myself but he hangs around on my “I really like these” lists! Jonah gets a solid & enthusiastic :thumbsup: from me. Jonah’s aces! 😀