Sidenote: Welcome to the new year! I’ve successfully completed one semester of my Q-year at UT, and hopefully will continue to match/exceed my previous performance in the new term, as grad schools now consider my applications for their MA program in Linguistics. Unlike my days as an undergrad, I never handed in anything late, nor did I skip any submissions this term. I honestly have my three+ years’ corporate experience to thank for my current time-management skills (which is still far from exemplary, but thankfully distant from the dysfunctional state I was in during my late teens). I also spent two weeks in Tokyo during my winter holidays, which I’ll blog about later (with a relevant linguistic angle — I promise!)

It’s funny to consider what kind of associations people make with words and especially names. Sure, in the study of semantics, we talk about salience of meanings, so that “foul” as in “bad play/move in sports” is more likely to be elicited in the average speaker’s mind than “bad-smelling”. Given names are more nebulous, although certain cultural staples exist. For example, most people imagine Gertrude as being over a certain age, or that Martha is over a certain weight.

My given name, Joseph, isn’t really all that exciting. Etymologically, it comes from Hebrew, and means “he will increase/add”. Frankly, I suspect it’s supposed to say more about my fecundity than my arithmetic ability. In any case, it’s not an especially novel name, nor an especially novel spelling (like “Yoseff”, for example). In the decade I was born, “Joseph” was the tenth most popular given male name; and in 2011, ranked 22nd.

Now, “Joseph” being a standard common Christian English name, doesn’t have any strong associations for me. And I suspect, for most people, meeting someone named “Joseph” doesn’t really elicit any particular associations or surprise. And yet, a few weeks ago, when I met a fellow Asian-(North)-American, her first response to learning my name was “Is your family Christian?”


Yes, Joseph does appear in the bible. Twice! There was the technicolor-dream-coat-wearing dream-interpreter to the stars pharaohs after being sold into slavery by his elder half-brothers, and then there was the foster/adopted father of the Christian messiah. But I didn’t think that ‘Joseph’ was a particularly polarized name for one’s (parents’) religious affiliation.

Sharing this somewhat bizarre experience with two friends, we agreed that although “Joseph” is definitely more Christian than say, “Charles”, it’s not exactly strongly Christian the way that “Simeon”, or “Issac” would be.

Still, they presented some convincing anecdotal evidence that certain strongly atheistic families that they knew personally had more anglo-saxon names like “Robert”, “William”, and “Scott” instead of [culturally] Christian families with “Paul”, “Michael”, or “Mark”. We also talked about how the shortened form as the formal given name (like “Toby” or “Mike”) fails to elicit that Christian association, however faint, versus “Jerry”-as-being-short-for-Jeremiah would. Through the discussion, we also touched on names from the Bible that were more likely to be selected by Jewish families versus Christian families (like “Naomi”, apparently).

As it turned out, the person who originally made this original association kinda lucked out, because she thought there was a Book of Joseph in the Bible (which there isn’t, unless you’re Mormon, but even then… ). There was a Roman historian by the name of Josephus though, who figured into the tapestry of Judeo-Roman history.

According to this website, the following are the top 25 given male names (in the USA in 2011):

  1. Jacob
  2. *Mason
  3. *William
  4. ?Jayden
  5. Noah
  6. Michael
  7. Ethan
  8. ?Alexander
  9. *Aiden
  10. Daniel
  11. *Anthony
  12. Matthew
  13. Elijah
  14. Joshua
  15. ?Liam
  16. Andrew
  17. James
  18. David
  19. Benjamin
  20. *Logan
  21. Christopher
  22. Joseph
  23. ?Jackson
  24. Gabriel
  25. *Ryan

Of which, a whopping 15 are Biblical. (Starred names are unequivocally non-biblical, and ?’ed names are potentially biblical.) “Jackson” and “Alexander” are borderline cases, since Jackson is formed from the diminuitive for John: “Jack”.  Alexander is also mentioned a few times in the Bible, although its popularity in Europe was more largely attributed to Alexander the Great. “Liam” is a diminuitive of “William,” although at first blush, I would have guessed it was Celtic, like “Aiden” is. “Jayden” is also borderline, depending on whether you believe it to be a variant of the biblical “Jadon”, or a created name to rhyme with the then-emergent popularity of other names like “Branden”, “Hayden”, and “Aiden”.

While we’re on the topic of associations, it’s amazing to see how first associations strongly mold later impressions. Friends who know me as Seph find it hard to link me with “Joseph” (which is a positive side-effect, given the relative ubiquity of the name), and those who know me as Joseph find it hard to imagine me as anything else. My family (and very few select friends from childhood) call me Joey, which might explain my early fascination with a certain macropodal marsupial.

I understand that more unique names are more likely to provoke more unique responses from people, but to get something like this from my plain ol’ “Joseph” was positively baffling. I’d love to hear of any other similar stories, where a common/popular name received a strange reaction from a stranger. Comments below! 🙂