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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Baby Naming Issue: Cohen

Jaime writes:
I'm really hoping you can help us. This is my second email to you, my first was simply a cry for help in finding a boys name but now I really need help.

Please keep in mind that we live in Canada so some of our baby name choices and their popularity are different than the US.

My husband and I like names that can be said easily, that aren't too trendy but that are not too different. We tend to like names that are on popular lists. Our daughter, Addison, was born 4 years ago and in Canada at the time it was less popular. Now it has gained popularity and I'm ok with that. So names that are perhaps number 48 on the top 100 is fine by US. 

Here are some that have been on the list:

So here's the problem. We like the name Cohen a lot  it seems to be the best fit for us so far.  It has taken us a long time to get to a name we both like. When I googled the name and it's meaning it sounded fine, "priest" in Hebrew. Then I read a little further and read that it can be controversial in some ways because it can be seen as disrespectful among the Jewish community.  In Canada it is currently number 35 on the Baby Centre website. So it is clearly used often enough and it is apparently on the rise. If I look the name up on US websites some lists don't even have Cohen in their top100.

I've read forums of people who don't think it's big deal while others are appalled at the disrespect and ignorance that people have shown in naming their babies Cohen. I am certainly not in the business of offending members of any Jewish community nor do I want to set my son up to offend others simply by his name.

Please help.

The Cohen issue is not one I was familiar with, and I cringe at the thought of wading through all the angry-toned search results I'd have to read to get a grasp on the issue---but I have a general policy about all such things: if there is some risk of offense or other ickiness involved in using a name, and if you are not yet bound to that name by blood and tears, it is usually better to keep looking.

So in this case, if your maiden name were Cohen, and if since childhood you'd wanted to use the name for a son, and if coincidentally you and your husband were huge David X. Cohen fans, and if you'd gone the whole pregnancy assuming you'd name your son Cohen and then in the delivery room a nurse pointed out the issue, then I would be like, "Meh! There seems to be some sort of issue with this name, but it looks to me as if no one is actually using it with the intent to offend, and it's coming into style because of all the Rowans and Owens and surname names, and pretty soon it's going to be popular enough that there won't be any offensive connotation anymore at all, and especially with religious/cultural issues (i.e., where it's an issue in one religion/culture but not an issue in others) it's really hard to know at what level of someone else's being-offended we need to take the responsibility of avoiding it, and it sounds like Means Something as a surname but not as a first name, so just go ahead and use it, and if anyone remarks on it you can explain your reasons."

Instead I will say that if it's just the first name you've found that you can agree on, maybe that's not enough reason to take a risk with something like this. It's hard to evaluate the disrespect/offense in something unless it affects oneself: it always seems like other people's touchy areas are "touchy areas," whereas one's own touchy areas are Big Outrageous Serious Things, Symbolic of Deeper Problems. For myself, I don't think I'd find it worth it: if I'd used the name Cohen oblivious to the controversy, I wouldn't go out and change it, but if I knew about it ahead of time I'd steer clear just to avoid the headache/fretting.

On the other hand, if time goes by and the end of the pregnancy is nigh and you still can't agree on anything else, return to the first point and maybe just go ahead and use it. You'd be using it as a rapidly-rising surname name, not as an attempt to offend.

Does anyone know if there are the same issues with other spellings? For example, could you use Coen like The Coen Brothers, or is that just as potentially offensive? It's too bad Cowen looks so bovine.

If you like Cohen, maybe you'd like:


And let's have a poll over to the right to see if we can gauge how serious/well-known this issue is. [Poll closed; see results below.]

Poll results for "The Cohen Issue" (476 votes total):

I knew; it's a deal-breaker - 134 votes (28%)
I knew; it's not a deal-breaker - 36 votes (8%)
I didn't know; it's a deal-breaker - 113 votes (24%)
I didn't know; it's not a deal-breaker - 171 votes (36%)
I can't decide - 22 votes (5%)

Name update! Jaime writes:
Remember me...the Cohen issue?  That sparked quite the conversation. After reading all 84 comments, we couldn't even fathom sticking with the name. So we went back to the drawing board. In fact I went back to a name I liked right away, and one that you suggested, and gave my husband some time to explore the meaning. In the end we agreed!  Callum was born last week. I can't imagine him having any other name. Thank you for helping us and thank you to everyone who commented. 


Michelle said...

I'm Jewish, so that's my angle. I would not be offended by this, especially if you aren't Jewish. The deal with the name Cohen (and other variations) is that it signifies a member of the priestly class in Judaism (as opposed to a Levite), which has very little bearing on day to day issues (and in fact, my in-laws are Kahns and thought they were Cohenim, but they aren' it isn't really clear cut.) So anyways, while the name "means" priest, it's more of a distinction between clans than a name meaning, and only in the last name area. I would not find it disrespectful to use as a first name because you aren't trying to use it as some way to shoehorn in your child, etc.

If you love the name, use it!

Becca said...

I've seen it spelled with a K instead of a C, so that could be an option?

Anonymous said...

I am Jewish, and I do find it to be an extremely disrespectful choice for a non-Jewish couple. It would probably affect the way I thought about the child and the entire family.

Sarah said...

How about the spelling Cohan?

Personally, I don't know if I'd worry about it too much, but I'd probably run it by some of our Jewish friends and acquaintances to get their opinions on it. There is a thriving population of Jewish people in our area and I'd really want to avoid anything that could cause a problem.

Swistle said...

Anonymous 10:36- Could you give us a little more information about your reasons? Many of us are going to be innocently clueless on this topic and would be very surprised to find they were considered extremely disrespectful, and/or that someone's entire view of the entire family would change like that. More information might help considerably to make your point.

gwen said...

I'm Jewish, and I just voted "can't decide" on the right, because... I can't decide.

On the one hand, I don't find it horribly disrespectful or offensive. The reason some people might is that yes, it denotes a priestly class and has a very specific meaning in the context of the religion. You need to be born a cohen (pronounced "CO-hain" in Hebrew) and someone who isn't is sort of taking on a mantle that doesn't belong to them. Personally, though, as a pretty liberal Jew, I have no problem with it at all. I like the fact that someone would want to be associated with our tribe.

On the other, it does strike me as a touch odd. It sort of draws a parallel or an assumption that isn't true about your family. The only parallel I can think of is naming your son "Pope" because you liked the name. It's an imperfect example for sure, but it's along those lines. Again, I don't find it offensive, just sort of... huh.

I like Rowan and Owen, and I don't know of any problem with "Coen," either.

Autumn said...

There's a few threads about this over on Nameberry -- this is one of the more interesting ones, and contains some good explanations of why some people find it offensive:

Karen L said...

You wrote: I am certainly not in the business of offending members of any Jewish community nor do I want to set my son up to offend others simply by his name.

I think that's your answer right there. Sure, you can ask around in hopes that you'll find that you think those who object are being unreasonable. But do you really want to make that judgement call on behalf of your son?

Swistle said...

Gwen- Is it only as a surname that it has meaning?

Anonymous said...

I'm not Jewish, but I live in the Boston area, which has a fairly large Jewish population -- and a lot of my closest friends are very observant Jews. So I could never do it, having heard a number them talk at length about how offensive they find that choice of name.

It just seems... not horrible, but weird to me to appropriate a term (and it is a religious term, never a *first* name, in Jewish culture) from someone else's deeply held belief system, just because one thinks it sounds cool. The nearest parallel I've come across is a guy I knew in college who renamed himself Avatar. Now, obviously the word "avatar" has come to take on many related meanings in the English language, but there was an Indian (Hindu) woman in our class who just could not bring herself to call him that -- because in her religion, an avatar specifically refers to an earthly incarnation of the Supreme Deity, and she would have felt blasphemous using it as a name for some guy who just used too much patchouli. ;)

Cohen isn't anywhere near *that* disrespectful, I think, but I would caution against the argument I've seen some people (not you, Jaime!) use: "well, there aren't a lot of Jewish people in our circles, so it's not likely to offend anyone." Because who can say, your son may wind up being one of Canada's greatest statesmen and diplomats who could have solved the Middle East peace process if it weren't for the fact that his name made the nation of Israel cringe, you know? I'm being facetious, of course, but just to make the point that you never know where the kid will wind up, and it's best not to *knowingly* saddle him with something that could produce a significant negative reaction among some other religious or ethnic group.

Having said that, I am given to understand that Coen is a fairly controversy-free alternative. I also love a lot of Swistle's suggestions, esp. Callum, Conan and Rowan.

courtneysamantha said...

I have a friend that named her son Cohen and she hasn't had an issue with the name. I have to admit, the name wasn't a favorite for me when I first heard it,but now I wish I had found it first.

Kate said...

I don't have an opinion on Cohen, but it made me think of another name that sounds similar: Corban. I have a nephew with this name and think it's really cool. It is biblical and means devoted to God.

-R- said...

Wow! I had no idea this was an issue. Interesting.

gwen said...

Swistle - I've never heard it as anything but a surname. But the word "cohen" itself has the meaning... it's a common noun in addition to a proper noun.

Anonymous said...

This name has been discussed several times over at the Baby Name Wizard blog. There are some very intelligent discussions about why this name could be considered offensive, perhaps they would help you make your final decision (I find the discussions there & on Swistle's blog to be much more polite than some other baby name sites).

Personally, I wouldn't use it. The name has significant meaning for a specific cultural group and it feel likes cultural appropriation to me. For a comparison, I also would never use names like Cheyenne or Dakota either. These names are also offensive to some of the Native American tribal groups from which they originate. There are so many lovely names in the world, why use something that could label you or your child as culturally ignorant-or worse, insensitive?

Anonymous said...

I'm not Jewish, but I knew about the issue with this name. I have heard it discussed several times among Jewish and non Jewish people, yes there are always a few Jewish people that don't mind, but for each of them there are a handful that do find it very offensive, and if it were me I just wouldn't think using the name would be worth the risk of offending people especially if the name doesn't have any significance to you other than you can't agree on anything else. Even if you feel like you can come to peace with the fact that the name might be offensive to some, I think I would worry about making that decision for my son. I love swistle's suggestion of Nolan, Owen and Rowan. I think those would be excellent choices!

Deanna said...

I really had no idea this was an issue. We don't have a lot of Jewish communities here in the South, so there is a lot about the faith I am not familiar with. Now all I can think about is Seth from The O.C. His last name was Cohen, right? And wasn't one of the parents Jewish? Was that offensive, or maybe less so because they didn't choose it?

lacey said...

I'm with the commenters who say that, regardless of the fact that some people are OK with it, since a large portion of people obviously are not, and will become upset by it, and/or judge you or your son...why do it? The negatives seem to far outweigh "it's one of the few we both like."

I used to know a man from Jamaica, who wore long dreadlocks; they are a spiritual symbol in his culture---very dear and important. He was appalled and angered by the fact that dreadlocks were appropriated and worn casually by Americans who did not understand the tradition. It's hard to get too mad at people who didn't know, but once they did...would they keep them? Knowing that they were so hurtful, why?

There are of course similar issues with Native American apparel, and culturally appropriative Halloween costumes. Particularly instances wherein the culture that is being appropriated is one that has been historically oppressed by the culture that is appropriating---like I can imagine that the Native American headdress, if worn casually/costume-ily by someone who identifies as being descended from the Mayflower, might be particularly burning.

I try to think about how I would feel if a symbol that I hold dear, that my grandmother holds dear, were appropriated by people who don't understand / belong to a culture that oppresses me or oppressed my ancestors. It would suck.

You sound like you are giving this a lot of thought. Props for that! :-)

Anonymous said...

What about the name Coban? I know a few Cohen's and not being Jewish or in an area with many Jews I had know idea the name held potential controversy. I'm not sure I'd use it if it has strong possibilities if being offensive.

gwen said...

Ditto to what lacey just said... thank you for caring about this and giving it so much thought! Regardless of his name, your little boy will benefit from being raised by culturally sensitive parents. :)

And Cohen as a last name isn't offensive at all. It means that far back in that person's past, someone in their family was a cohen -- a member of the Jewish priestly class.

(There also are some non-Jewish people out there with the surname Cohen, which probably evolved from entirely different origins.)

Bethany Haid said...

I am not Jewish, and I have no practicing Jewish friend that influence my thoughts.

From reading the comments, if this is a last name issue when pronounced CoHain, it doesn't seem to be as big of a dea if you say Co-en, and spell it that way. Maybe even Kohen?

I would probably use this name, or use something like Owen if its the sound you like, not the name's meaning.

Kristi said...

I'm from the South, and there isn't much a Jewish community, so I had no idea this was an issue.

Out of pure curiousity (and no intention to offend) can it be compared at all to the use of the name Jesus in the Hispanic language? I don't bat an eyelash when I hear someone has that name even though I'm Christian, so I guess I don't understand why people would be "deeply offended" by the use of Cohen. I understand thinking it is odd, but a lot of people's baby name choices can come across odd to those of us who wouldn't choose that name.

It's a shame that there is such a debate about it because Cohen is a great name.

StephLove said...

I think of it as being similar to using a Native American tribe name as a name (e.g. Cheyenne) and therefore something I wouldn't do.

Anonymous said...

Kristi, Jesus isn't a very good parallel for a couple of reasons. Jesus (or Yeshua) was used as a first name long before Jesus of Nazareth. There is a long tradition in Christian culture of using first names that honor Biblical figures, and of course, among Spanish speakers who choose the name, Jesus is used with exactly the same reverence that one would use, e.g., Mary or Maria.

Cohen as a first name would be a little closer (again, not at all an exact parallel, but closer) to Christ as a first name. Not Chris, Christopher, Christine, Christian, etc. but Christ. Generally speaking, Christians just wouldn't feel comfortable using that as a first name; you can probably imagine how bizarre it would seem to go to, say, a majority-Muslim country and meet a guy named Christ whose parents just "liked the sound."

Chaya said...

First off, I'm Jewish.
The difference, I think, is marginalization. The Jewish community is marginalized, in that they have experienced huge amounts of discrimination and oppression. So when the majority population (white, non-Jewish individuals) use a sacred term for the heck of it, it is offensive. It's kind of a stab when a culture that has continually oppressed you and bullied you goes off and uses one of your sacred terms "just because."
The Jesus thing in Hispanic culture is very different. They are not appropriating a marginalized group's sacred term (and no, Christians are not a marginalized group.) Also, Jesus was and has continued to be a very common first name among males, before, during, and after the famous Jesus's lifetime. Jesus wasn't even his real name..."Jesus" is the Anglicized, white-person version. People name their child Joshua all the time--it's the same name, from "Yeshua"
All that to say, I would not name by child Cohen. I read somewhere that "Cowan" is the Irish surname version. I'd use that instead if you're really stuck on using the name.

Anonymous said...

What about Culver or Nolan?

Barb said...

I didn't know of the reverence this name held in the Jewish culture. I just knew it was a Jewish surname. I have two friends with sons named Cohen. Interesting post and thread.

Anonymous said...

Christian Hispanics who use Jesus as a name is not the same thing as a non-Jew using Cohen as a first name. Hispanics have every right to use Jesus as this name is culturally important to them and there is a long tradition of reverence in using the name. Chaya, thank you for pointing out the Jesus/Joshua/Yeshua connection for those who might not already be aware. Christ as a first name is a good comparison. I think someone using things like Priest, Pope or Reverend as a first name "just because" would also be good analogies-although not quite perfect since Cohen is not a title that is earned.

Claire Wessel said...

Coen has the same sound, but is a Germanic name with a different root/meaning. I think it looks nice too. Personally, I'd go that route just to avoid any issues of offense but still have the name you like.

Anonymous said...

Although I'm not personally offended by the rising popularity of the name Cohen, it just sounds so, so strange and culturally jarring to me every time I hear it.... Like Seamus Wong. Or Gunthar El-Abin.

What about:

From your list, I think Carter is a stellar choice!

Swistle said...

Anonymous 2:26- "Christ" doesn't seem like it could be a good parallel name for comparison here. That's the name of God in one religion, but it sounds like Cohen means born into a line of priests of a religion, right? Would a better parallel be maybe naming someone Reverend, or Minister, or Pastor?

Swistle said...

Anonymous 2:46- Ah, I see you beat me to it!

Anonymous said...

Hm, I'm torn. I've a good friend who named her first son Cohen seven years ago. She had no idea of the controversy and she and her hub named him this partly in honour of Leonard Cohen, partly simply because they liked the sound. Interestingly, her hub now works at Jewish private school (though he's not Jewish) and gets teased about each of their four kids names because they all *sound Jewish*. I've not heard of anyone being outwardly upset at or with them, but perhaps they wouldn't do so directly to my friends.

Since you do know the potential for offence, I might opt to choose a different name, especially since there are so many great names out there. As others have mentioned if you feel like this is THE name and you must use it, perhaps consider an alternative spelling. I know a Koen. You could even have a Kowan, which is much more like Rowan.

I'm wondering more about those people who have already named their sons Cohen, who adore their little (or big) Cohens, and may find out that their chosen name offends some people. I guess one just makes peace with this in some way and moves on. My friend seems to have done so. Since no one has ever challenged her personally about her son's name, most of the time she doesn't think about it, except in terms of her son, who is simply their Cohen. It's an interesting dilemma to think of (ditto those who have already named children Cheyenne or Dakota - I'd ever heard of those being *offensive*!) - what do you do with this info after the fact?

Anonymous said...

I can see how it's weird to use a name from a religion that's not your own because you like the significance but may not actually understand it (say, naming your kid Karma). But there are also a lot of kids out there named Karma, and it seems a little harsh to be "offended" by the choice their well meaning parents made. With Cohen, it seems like an even bigger leap, because most parents picking the name are probably oblivious to the significance and just like the sound...and it's a simple and common enough sound I don't see how any one culture can claim to own it. I know Vietnamese people named Phuc, but I don't find their names offensive just because that sound means something in my culture that it didn't mean in their parents' culture. All that being said though, I'd spell it Coen to avoid the issue entirely.

vanessa said...

I would never do it. It seems like cultural appropriation, and we as a culture--particularly white folks--have enoug problems with that already.

Anonymous said...

Swistle, Anonymous 2:26 here: I totally agree that that the analogy is not perfect! I used "Christ" as an example only because it was originally a title (meaning, as you doubtless know, "anointed," and not literally God) and thus somewhat more similar to a priestly title than to a given name.

I would guess that Cohen falls somewhere between Pastor/Minister and Christ in how comparatively jarring it is to (religious) Jewish ears. Remember that the Kohanim must be descended from Aaron and that this role is considered to be a sacred covenant passed on directly from God -- it's not just a job title, if you see what I mean. :)

Little Bird said...

The survey results -- as of now -- are telling. Overwhelmingly, the votes are going two ways. People who knew of the controversy would NOT use the name. People who did not know of the controversy WOULD use the name. It seems that people familiar with the Judaic meaning (hence the controversy) are opposed.

As a Jew, I was highly surprised when I first saw anyone using this as a first name. And, for the record, the alternate spellings do not change the meaning. Cohen is a transliteration from Hebrew. Cohan, Cohan, Kohen, Kohan, Kohn, Cohn, Kahn and Cahn all mean the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Just a note: the babycenter top 100 list is not the best indicator of popularity because it only represents the names parents share with the website. So it is biased towards parents who are more likely to share their names online!

Megz said...

Wow, I had no idea the name Cohen was so controversial. I always thought it was Celtic.

Maybe Connor would be a better alternative?

Perhaps in Canada it would be more comparable to naming your child "Prince" (traditionally a hereditary title that conveys superiority). For example while I don't find it highly offensive that Michael Jackson named his son Prince, I do consider it rude. As though somehow his son is better than the rest of us.

(As an aside I also wonder if the title Cohen is related to the Eastern title Khan).

jerilyn said...

I'm not Jewish... but I'd never want to put my child in a tough situation as they get older. They have to live with their name for life!

chayary said...

Hmm. Another Jew chiming in here. I have to say, I don't find it offensive at all, just a little nonsensical is all. It doesn't make me think somebody is trying to claim some special status, or appropriate my culture or demean something sacred. Just that somebody picked a baby name because it sounds trendy, and not because of any deeper meaning. And FYI, someone mentioned Korban, which in Hebrew actually means sacrifice, specifically typically old testament animal sacrifice. Wouldn't recommend using it, although again not offended, more like a shoulder shrug.

Anonymous said...

I am Jewish (a very UN-orthodox Jew), and although I do not think of it as extremely OFFENSIVE, if I heard of a child called Cohen, I would definitely squirm a bit. I did know of the issue and I think that, yes, you have the right to name your son whatever you want, but would you name him something that would (and it will) cause scrutiny, and stares by some of the population? I think maybe moving it to the middle name spot might lessen some of the shock. Being Jewish, for me, some of the issues about this name come from the fact that the Jews have been persecuted and discriminated, and then for a non Jew (not trying to be discriminative here) to use the name, is kind of like saying I can use the name just because I like it, yet not think about the Jewish associations, and struggle and horrible things they have been through for bearing different names. (EX: Jews were thought to be able to be recognized by certain names during the Holocaust (not sure if you can see my point) ) (however, this is DEFINITELY not your case! You have obviously put a lot of thought into this, and it is greatly appreciated:) ) Although I can't really pinpoint a set reason for my opinions, I know that if I heard this (first)name on someone who wasn't Jewish, I would not judge them or their family, and it wouldn't turn me away, I would just feel a little uncomfortable.

Robyn said...

Wow, I had no idea that it was a Jewish name and certainly no idea that it was so controversial. I have a friend named Cohen and I always thought it was a nice strong name but hadn't thought any more about it. (I'm Australian, not sure if its potentially less of an issue here?)

Nedra said...

I just wanted to write in how appreciative I am of this discussion. I am not Jewish, but I was aware of the controversy and have seen much less civil/enlightened discussions on the topic. I really like how the "folks-in-the-know" are striving to come up with appropriate analogies and how the folks who aren't necessarily in the know on this particular issue are giving great insight into the issue of cultural competency in general.

I agree with most of the other commentators that even if your intentions are innocent, you shouldn't give your son a name that would potentially offend the people he meets for the rest of his life. I am surprised by folks who say that it doesn't matter because there are few/no Jewish people in their area -- as though their son would never grow up and potentially move anywhere else. It's not just about whether the parents are willing to deal with any potential embarassment, there's a kid's future at risk. As a religious issue, this is not one that is likely to go away.

I do wonder about all the folks who have already named their sons Cohen. Particularly those who unfortunately did so before it became a known issue. I am very surprised that parents who use it now were not aware. Most people Google their baby names in advance and would have discovered the issue.

I did have a friend in college who was irritated by the fact that the Seth Cohen character on The OC was sometimes called Cohen by his friends. Even though the character was Jewish and had come by his surname "honorably," my friend was offended because he felt that it implied that the name Cohen could/should be used as a given name.

Anonymous said...

I am also Australian, and it is NOT less of an issue here. Every capital city and some country centres have strong Jewish cOmmunities, so the chance a child naned Cohen would not eventually come across a Jewish community is small. My friend named his son Cohen, because he thought the name 'holyman' or 'priest' was cool, then moved state to a different area. His sons name has been the cause if some fallout at the new school. The school actually recommended he be called by his middle or last name instead, and he now goes a different name for just at school. My friend wishes he had put more research into his sons name choice. You have some other great names on your list, and some suggestions above regarding spelling are also useful. For your sons sake, for the circles he may mix with in his future, please make another choice.

Swistle said...

Little Bird- The poll is neat for me, too! I'm finding interesting that there's a large group of people who hadn't realized there was a controversy until now---but upon learning of it, immediately concluded it's a deal-breaker. That group is right now at nearly the same percentage of people who DID know and consider it a deal-breaker.

I'm also noticing that if you just count "people who consider it a deal-breaker" versus "people who don't," it's almost exactly 50-50 right now.

Diane said...

(First of all, I am not Jewish nor do I live in an area with a high population of Jewish people.)

Even if someone was having a hard time understanding why this name is offensive to Jewish people, I don't think that's the only issue at stake here. The fact is that a group of people, and not just a small group but a large group living in communities throughout the world, finds this name offensive. I think it's good to try to understand things from the perspective of other people, but in the end, whether a non-Jewish person grasps the problem with this name or not is not the only issue.

The other question to answer is whether your child will appreciate being called Cohen. I can imagine a number of situations where having this name will actually make his life more difficult and close doors for him, be it in politics or humanitarian situations or even everyday college/job applications. A Jewish hiring manager might take one look at his name on a resume and form an opinion (subconscious or not) about your son, and while that could happen with any name, this name clearly is very offensive to a number of people in a way other names are not.

I could never do that knowingly to my own child.

I personally wouldn't use the name just because I can see how it is offensive to Jewish people and that is not okay with me. But aside from what other people think, the fact that your son might suffer if you do name him Cohen seems like a good enough reason to me to find another name.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't do it. I know someone who named their baby Kohen last year, and they have already run into one or two comments.

From your list I like Carson.

Anonymous said...

Weighing in as a fellow Canadian--I'm not Jewish and I live in a very small city in Alberta that is not culturally diverse in the least. However, the larger city just north of mine has a sizable Orthodox Jewish community, so one's child would not have to travel very from my small community to encounter people who might be offended by their name. This name for me would not pass Swistle's test of "would I want this as my name?". I personally would not want to go through life with a name that might cause offense to another group of people, and potentially cause some to pre-judge my family as culturally ignorant.

Mary said...

I agree with Chaya's analysis, and think the point is it doesn't really matter if non Jewish people don't find it offensive -- it's not our place to make that call. It would just be another expression of power to dismiss their concerns as being "not relevant". This is obviously a name that a lot of Jewish people do find significantly inappropriate and THAT should then be the end of the discussion for me.

Good intentions do not negate cultural/religious appropriation.

Rachel said...

Longtime Swistle lurker and Jew here. I agree with Gwen's and Chaya's comments above, and wanted to shed some more light on my Cohen experience. The Cohens are indeed descended from Aaron and, traditionally, have specific duties they must perform. The one that comes to mind is that at a Jewish funeral there must be a Cohen outside the cemetery (but I can't recall why). I'm not personally offended by using Cohen as a first name, but I do think it's more of a head scratcher. In my experience the traditional Cohen role may be something that's more relevant to our grandparents' generation than our own, but I also agree with the comments above that Jewish names deserve a little more deference due to the centuries of persecution and discrimination faced by the Jewish community. I feel the same way about names that could be offensive to other persecuted people, such as Native Americans. Why risk saddling your child with a name that anyone could find offensive? Also, I would draw a parallel to something that I remember reading (not sure where, it might have been Swistle's comment) after Nicole Kidman named her second daughter Faith already having a daughter named Sunday: what message is being sent with this name? I would feel the same if I ran into a child named Reverend or Rabbi.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:36 here - I do realize that other people will say there's nothing proprietary about names, but, among other reasons,it feels like an affront to use Cohen as a first name because it has a specific meaning and function for us and for our religion. It's a specifically Jewish thing and one of our ties to ancient Judaism. It also feels sacrilegious - even if it may not technically be so -- because it's a name with a very specific religious connotation that you would never use as a first name. I will admit, not quite so bad as running into someone named Adonai, which is one of the ways we refer to g-d and would thus NEVER name a person. It's a growing name in Hispanic evangelical communities, but I can't exactly call someone by his name if his name is Adonai.

Anonymous said...

What about Corin?

Jenny said...

This is fascinating; I had no idea what Cohen meant. What about the name Asher (Hebrew for happy)? I gather that Cohen is particularly problematic because of what it means, but is it problematic for Gentiles to use Hebrew names, period?

Sebastiane said...

I do find it rather disrespectful. It would be like naming your child Pope or Rabbi. I think it is only acceptable to use if you are Jewish and are actually using it in reference to its symbolism. I would spell it Koen, which is a legit Dutch short form of Conrad. That way, it is still a trendy name that fits into your style yet lacks the controversy.

Anonymous said...

Another Jew here ... like many commenters, I wouldn't find the use of the name by a non-Jew offensive, per se, but I do think it's super weird. Not so much because of the holiness connotation, but just because it is literally THE MOST Jewish surname I can think of. Someone above mentioned knowing non-Jewish Cohens, but I've never met any (and by the way: I've also known Cowens, Coens, and Kohens, all Jewish. Many Jewish-Americans' names have different spellings depending on where their ancestors emigrated from -- particularly if it was from somewhere with a different alphabet, like Russia or Greece, the name could have been transliterated into English in a number of different ways). If you meet a Cohen, chances are they're a Jew. Also, among Jews, it is never ever used as a first name (it's considered bad luck to name our children after people still living, so family surnames are not used the same way they are among gentiles), so that compounds the weirdness.

Certainly it's not offensive to have it as a last name -- that's how it's supposed to be used, as a hereditary demarcation of ancestral position. Also my personal belief is that it's fine to use a Hebrew name like Asher if you're not Jewish -- non-French people use French names all the time, for instance, and no one gets mad! I think the people who'd be mad about a gentile Asher (or Noah or Sarah or David, or any other Hebrew-originiating name common among Jews) are on extreme ends of the bell curve and don't really need to be taken into account.

Anonymous said...

I commented earlier about a friend having named her son Cohen 7 years ago. I am certain she had no idea of any of this. With more and more little Cohens out there, it seems like there's more awareness. I'm not writing on behalf of her, but I'm curious what some think that people who have already named their kids Cohen should do. I'm not asking as a challenge (e.g. "whatcha gonna do about it?") but if it distresses someone when they finds out that the name of their child is offensive to some people, do you think they should just make peace with it? Short of changing the child's name (which doesn't seem super realistic), should they think of changing the spelling (to some commenters this doesn't matter), considering calling them by their middle name (again, may not be realistic - in the case of my friend, her son has no middle name), or adding an explanation when introducing their child (e.g. "We named him after Leonard Cohen"). It just seems like such a difficult situation to be in and I have no idea what I'd do myself.

Anonymous said...

I'm Jewish and I think the objections to the use of this name are extremely problematic. It is just very offensive to me to suggest that certain people belong to a special elevated priestly caste and that lesser people or outsiders cannot use the name. We have moved away from this caste-based thinking in recent centuries and it's a good thing too. I think a very small minority of Jews actually believe they own this name and that you should go ahead and use it without concern. It's a very popular name these days!

Anonymous said...

what about Bowen (pn. BO- in), nn Bowie (pn. Bo-ee? Cute, trendy, yet uncommon:)

Anonymous said...

I'm Jewish and it makes me uncomfortable. It's cultural appropriation of a name/word "because it sounds good" (and because it's what Summer called Seth on the OC, barf, but at least she called him that because, you know, it was actually his last name), and it's tone-deaf because Jews would not use it as a first name in basically any circumstance I can think of. I think it is like a non-Christian naming their child Christ ("anointed") or Pope "because we liked the sound." Oh, okay, something that's very serious and very sacred to me, that I would never use as a baby name, that's your "we liked the sound" baby name. Thanks for taking my culture so seriously.

It's not that outsiders can't use the name, it's that it's not appropriate for insiders to use the name, either--a Cohen is a specific person with specific religious rules that apply to them and specific roles to play in certain religious situations (some holidays/ceremonies). Cohens can't go into cemeteries, I believe--it makes them ritually impure, and that's why you see them outside the gate at Jewish funerals. You don't see little Jewish-but-not-a-Cohen Cohen Goldsteins or Feinbergs running around. It's not a word we use for names because it's not appropriate to call people who aren't Cohanim "Cohen." (I'm not even observant and this strikes me as a really irritating, thoughtless kind of cultural appropriation. If I were already named Cohen, I'd start going by Co or by my initials or something.)

Swistle said...

Anonymous 8:01- I see your points, but I think it's also important to keep in mind that people who choose the name Cohen are not attempting to take someone else's culture, or trying to make light of something serious and sacred to someone else: they're choosing a name they found in a baby name book and liked, just like people who choose Miller or Mason. It's untypical for a member of a particular religion or culture to be familiar with every feature of all the other religions and cultures of the world, and people are not naming their babies as a way to deliberately smack others in the face. I nearly deleted your comment for disrespectful tone and language, but am leaving it because I value your perspective and because you also added to the discussion.

Joanne said...

I am commenting late to say that I had heard about it but I talk about baby names with friends a lot. A lot a lot. :) I can see it being offensive to Jews and I can see it being upsetting to someone who just chose a name that they liked. BUT I think that the group taking offense has it over the person choosing a name because they like it. I am an Irish American and I don't even like it when people misspell Irish names or use them when they are not Irish, so clearly I am crazy but I do think that it's the kinder choice to choose a different name or a different spelling, or something. I think Swistle has given great options, and I wish you luck!

Anonymous said...

Really? You want to deal with this? Stay away from this name. There are thousands upon thousands out there; keep searching.
Good Luck!

thethinksicanthink said...

I had no idea about the name "Cohen" issue - and I live in NYC! (However, I was raised in AL/TN).

I would not use Cohen just on the off chance it would offend someone - a potential employer, a teacher, etc.

I agree on liking the way the name sounds so why not Coen? Cohan?

If you don't like those spellings, I really like Nolan, Callum (nn Cal?) and maybe you would consider Lannon? I've always though "Stuart Lannon" sounded like a good name. Or maybe Cannon?

Good luck and I can't wait to hear what you decide!

Anonymous said...

I'm 8:01--Of course it's not intentional. The problem is that it's thoughtless. Thoughtless cultural appropriation doesn't sting less--part of the problem is that it seems like "not a big deal" to the appropriator. Or, if the issue occurs to the parents beforehand (perhaps after they google "Cohen baby name" as many expectant parents do in this day and age, regardless of what name they are considering) and they write in to a naming advice column to ask "Is this offensive" and receive what is indubitably a mixed bag of responses and then choose to disregard the chunk of responses that say yes, then perhaps it's not so thoughtless.

Suki said...

Wait,anonymouse 6:04, I feel like you're jumping the gun on this one. In your comment, it feels as if you think that the original poster has already made the decision to name the baby Cohen and disregard the negative feedback. which doesn't seem true to me at all. To me, the original poster reads like someone who *did* research the name,just as you somewhat condescendingly say they should do, discovered something that was disturbing to her about it, but that she perhaps didn't fully understand or see the scope of, and she asked for help to understand better. To me, her actions are anything but thoughtless.

Anonymous said...

I think I thought of a good analogy for this: it's not so much like a non-Christian naming their child Christ, but it's a little like the controversy surrounding the Urban Outfitters "Navajo" products. Remember this? The store was selling hip flasks and boyshort panties with Native American-inspired prints and calling them "Navajo Flask," "Navajo Boyshorts," and naturally the Navajo Nation was offended by the misapplication of their name and culture and, I believe, sued them over it.

It's a little like that: as Anonymous 6:04 said, it's thoughtless cultural appropriation. It seems like not a big deal to the appropriator, but to the appropriated it seems like a pretty major lack of understanding and sensitivity, and the "not a big deal" point of view only adds insult to injury.

Anonymous said...

I would like to chime in that even though lots of people "google" the name they are considering doesn't mean that everyone does. You can't decide that every baby Cohen was named with there parents knowing of the problem. I had no idea of the issue. And besides reading this blog I have never googled a name I was considering. Looking it up to see how popular the name was yes. reading this blog because I like it yes. But I never google the name I was thinking. And lots of lower class people don't have regular use of the internet. So please don't go around thinking that every person that named there child a name they liked did so with knowing all information about it.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's dangerous to assume that every single parent has a responsibility to google a name before giving it to a child...a lot more people name babies than hang out on baby name discussion boards. Also, I just did google "Cohen baby name," and I got this: as the top controversy in sight. I'd also be careful about assuming that "everybody" knows that Cohen is a Jewish name. I didn't, and I don't exactly live under a rock, even if I do live in a not-particularly-Jewish part of the country and my parents never taught me how to spot Jewish people when I did meet them.

liz said...

In the Lawrence Block book, "A Long Line of Dead Men", there's a bit at the beginning where 30 men are introducing themselves to each other:

"I'm Bob Berk. That's B-e-r-k, not B-u-r-k-e, so I'm Jewish, not Irish, and I don't know why I seem to feel compelled to mention that. Maybe that's the most interesting thing about me. Not that I'm Jewish, but that it's the first thing out of my mouth. Oh, I'm twenty-five, and how do I feel? Like you all belong here and I don't, but that's how I always feel, and I'm probably not the only person here who feels that way, right? Or maybe I am, I don't know..."

"Brian O'Hara, and that's with an apostrophe and a capital H, so I'm Irish, not Japanese..."

So, my point is, if you like Cohen, pick a name from your family's culture(s) that has that feel. As someone pointed out earlier, Koen from the Norwegian is a good alternative.

S said...

What I'm confused about is the different spellings of the name. Knowing the contreversary of the name, I would definitely not name my son that, but a lot of people suggested using different spellings. This would only help for people who are seeing the name written out, does that make sense? If I'm yelling after my son "Coen" in the grocery store, to someone who might find the name "Cohen" offensive, it will sound exactly like "Cohen" to them. So I guess what I'm saying is, wouldn't people who would feel weird about this name (but not say anything, if confronted I'm sure you can explain. For example Koen is Dutch, but sounds the same) assume the name is spelled "Cohen" and still get offended? I just am not sure changin the spelling would help.
Now, me personally, I'm not Jewish, but I wouldn't name my baby Cohen. Cohen happens to be my boyfriend's last name (he is Jewish) so obviously I wouldn't use it, but even if his last name was something else, I still wouldn't. I just feel like now that I know there IS such a contreversary around it, I would be intentionally disrespecting people. It's one thing if people honestly don't know (not everyone looks it up) but now that I do know, I would feel rude! I also wouldn't want my son to carry that burden around.
All that being said (so sorry for the long winded comment!) it's really great that you are respectful enough to ask this! It shows that you care about possibly offending people, and you deserve kudos for that!

Anonymous said...

I think we are going to need a list of every name that would offend any other culture or religion, so that we can be sure we're making everyone happy.

Anonymous said...

This is 8:01/6:04--I don't think the OP is thoughtless. She's writing in and asking a question. I'm saying that her choosing to go with Cohen anyway after writing in and presumably seeing all these responses would perhaps not best be characterized as "thoughtless" given how much thought would have gone into it at that point.

I wouldn't assume that someone calling their kid "Ko-enn" named them Cohen, just because it's not a first name in my experience. Honestly, I would probably assume I misheard.

Anonymous said...

It is ridiculous and fascitious to suggest that there should be a list of names which may offend people....we are suggesting that if you KNOW it will offend some people, indeed one of oldest and largest cultural groups in the western WORLD, don't use it. If someone didnt know, then they didnt know. Sorry kid.

Marina said...

Because it's been mentioned a couple of times I'd like to point out that the Dutch name Koen is not pronounced the same as Cohen - it's actually pronounced 'coon'... so not a great alternative I think.

Anonymous said...

I'm half Jewish and married Jewish so I get both sides: the what-is-the-big-deal-so-what side AND the you-have-got-to-be-kidding side.

I guess I think it is incredibly strange to give a child a ethnic name that is not his/her ethnicity. Yes, some people don't KNOW that it is an ethnic marker, but it IS and now YOU know.

It's also a pretty big deal in Judaism. As a direct translation, it means "priest" as in any priest, but it's also a much bigger deal. In that way, it seems as terrible an idea as getting a literal translation to Chinese characters tattooed on you. Sure, if it's just a translation of "holy" maybe that would be ok, but a lot is lost in translation when you are trying to understand words and do not have the whole connotative understanding that you would get by growing up in that language.

It seems like a recipe for disaster. People ignorant of the meaning will just think it a strange name. People who get it will think you are ignorant and offensive for the most part.

As I was saying, it's a pretty big deal in Judaism. Maybe not in American-we're-pretty-casual-about-everything Judaism, but it IS a pretty big deal. There are parts of temples that only Cohanim can enter. Cohanim are direct descendants of Aaron, Moses' brother.

Would you give your child a holy Islamic name? A holy Sikh name? I think it's just weird.

It was a big deal for me to give it to my children as a surname because I often travel in the Middle East and I was worried about traveling with my children there with that name in their passports. There is a lot of anti-semitism in the world and in some places it gets dangerous.

Lots of people will want to argue with a lot of what I said, but these are commonly held beliefs - maybe not in your community, but in the world - and it just seems like a lot to put on a child.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to second what Chaya said about marginalization. I think a huge part of this is that Jews are the most discriminated against people in the history of the planet and to have the mainstream (or, if you will, the most recent massive oppressor group) take a holy name cuz it's cute is just outlandish.

Also, this is NOT like naming your child Priest. Anyone can become a priest. Cohanim are born. It's about your ancestry. An ancestry for which a people has been subjugated, enslaved, and ethnic-cleansed, and the victim of genocide.

Give that to an INFANT??!

You can't. You just can't. And, no, in a country of immigrants where every spelling has been imposed by the spelling attempts of the bureaucrats at Ellis Island, you can't just spell it differently.

Some of the suggested alternatives are excellent. I love Corban!

Hermia said...

Do not use the name. It's too bad, and I agree that it sounds great (hey, OC fan here) but these kind of things happen. Imagine if your husband's ex-wife bore your favourite girl name... you'd probably have to give it up. And you probably wouldn't be happy about it. But you'd still have to.
This may seem different - because you don't live near a Jewish community, the problem understandably feels a bit abstract - but it isn't. Your son might end up marrying a Jew, having a Jewish boss and this is just not a weight you want him to carry.
I agree with some previous posters that while it's interesting to understand this specific problem, the only thing that should matter is that this name seriously offends a community that is not only present worldwide, but that has also been persecuted in the recent(ish) past.
I congratulate you for you thoughtfulness. I think you've made the right decision by posting here. While it's hard to realise just how important the problem is by just reading an article on nameberry, you got to see here that people that are not hardcore Jews and even non-Jews are offended/taken aback by this name and have reasonably explained you (and every potential parent that might consider this name) why.

Anonymous said...

Another Jew here who's not personally offended by it, but as the looooong list of comments here highlights, it's hugely controversial so I would never give the name to a child. (I would also raise an eyebrow if I met a young Cohen and wonder whether the parents looked into meanings at all, which is another issue.) I've heard people argue that they don't know any Jews so it's okay, etc.--but you just have no idea where your child's life will take him, and it's just too problematic to take a risk on, in my opinion. (I will also note that I have never known anyone Jewish with this as a first name, and my understanding is that it is generally frowned upon to give it as a first name in the Jewish community--last names are very different.) I also think Coen isn't a great solution because, as a PP noted, it's not pronounced the same way (except in the U.S./Canada where people aren't familiar with the German/Dutch pronunciation and are using it in place of Cohen, which, again, just becomes too complicated in my view).

If you love the sound, Owen and Rowan are great ways to get there without all the baggage! (I also love Emmett from your list, too!)

Alix said...

Wow, I LOVE how educated the people on this site are about cultural appropriation! It makes my heart feel a lot lighter, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I personally don't find the sound of the name appealing it sounds like cow-end which ironically is non kosher no offense if that is your family or childs name but as far as finding it offensive I disagree with the logic behind the aguement I am not Jewish but I respect all religions and cultures. The name is not the same as the actual title. It is a name whether nor not it is used as a surname or a given name. Having the surname Cohen does not make one Jewish family superior to another Jewish family. I think it should be noted that the world has come a long way in acceptance and unity when non Jewish families would name their child a Jewish name when years ago many people were victims of prejudice and tortured even killed for having a name like Cohen. For someone to descriminate or show any prejudice to a person just because Cohen is their first name is wrong for that. If that person who is prejudice is Jewish it's even worse because they should be in good faith. PS If I had liked the name and for some reason decided to name my son Cohen I wouldn't worry about him having conflict over it because with a last name like Ramirez and brown skin having that as a first name would be the last thing he'd get any grief over so it wouldn't bother me what people thought of his first name

ann said...

I know that I'm going to receive some more offensive comments but I'm curious for an opinion. My son is called Cohen, he was born in 2009. I did google the name but nothing was really mentioned about this controversy, or nothing that was bought directly to my attention. I guess I am culturally ignorant and I apologise for that. I do not want my sons life to be affected by this, I do not want him to miss out on jobs, uni applications etc and I certainly don't want him to "deeply offend" anyone due to my mistake. I am not in the situation where I can change his name now, but I could change the spelling to "Cowen" (irish origin) I am however worried about the bullying aspect of COW-en, the extra problems with changing a name etc. So my question is: is the change of the spelling something that would help the situation and help his life greatly in the future? I really appreciate any opinions as I have been really upset about this. I'm sorry if I have offended anyone.

Anonymous said...

I am respectful of all religions and cultures, granted some of them I may not agree with. I am also an open minded individual. As far as the Cohen issue this is how I see it: I understand that it represents a sacred blood line, I also understand that it is simply a collection of letters that happens to make the same sound, no one is trying to "shoe horn" themselves into the blood line by using this name. People are choosing the name for their babies, mostly understanding that it is Jewish (if not understanding some take offence) these people are happy, if not proud to use a name that is linked to the religion, people are not trying to suppress or "take away" anything from the religion. People are not trying to offend in any way.
PP please make peace with the fact that swistle made- with the increase in popularity of the name, some of the offensive connotation will be lost.

Anonymous said...

The letters C-O-H-E-N (and in that order) happen to mean something to the Jewish religion, it is also coincidence that people also like the same array of letters as a first name. It is not being used in the same context and for the same reason. I find it Ludacris that people find it "offensive". weapons of mass destruction are offensive, war is offensive. the use of these letters, and meaning no offense in using them, is not an offensive act. The people that are "deeply offended" by the use are closed minded individuals that must understand that the world changes. I think it's a beautiful name and you should use it with pride.

Leslie said...

Callum is a very handsome name; congrats on the birth of your (very well-named) son!