Opinion

Alex Beam

You don’t know Jake

What’s in a name? There’s now a “Jacob glut.” But why?
Adobe/Globe Staff
What’s in a name? There’s now a “Jacob glut.” But why?

This year’s University of Washington football team has four quarterbacks named Jake or Jacob, in addition to Jake the linebacker and a tight end named Jacob. Disambiguation is a challenge. The starting senior quarterback gets to be called “Jake,” while the others are known by nicknames, or contractions of their last names.

Stafford’s Pier, a seafood restaurant in Harbor Springs, Mich., has five Jakes on staff, and, like the Huskies, they use work-arounds to tell one from another. The Jake with red hair became “Red;” another was known by his initials, “J.C.,” etc.

“How Bad is the Jacob Glut?” The Wall Street Journal asks. “Half Your Staff Must Be Renamed.”

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There is a reason for this. For more than a decade, starting in 1999, Jacob was the most common name assigned to newborn boys. (It has since fallen to 10th place.) So the chances are high that college football players, younger waitstaff, and many, many bearded Brooklyn hipsters will be named Jacob.

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I have a rooting interest. I was a Jacob before it was fashionable. My father, Jacob D. Beam, named me Jacob Alexander Beam in 1954. He was something of a contrarian. That year, Jacob was the 306th most popular boy’s name, light years behind Michael, James and Robert.

My father was the son of a Jacob, and I am the father of a Jacob. We are our own little mini-race of Jacobs. Jacob was originally a Hebrew name, meaning “holder of the heel.” In the Book of Genesis, Jacob emerges from Rebecca’s womb right behind his brother Esau, thus metaphorically holding his twin’s heel.

Interestingly, the names James and Jacob are somewhat interchangeable, both derived from the Latin Iacomus, a later variant of Iacobus. Jacob was primarily a Jewish name until the Protestant Reformation. Soon after, Northern Europe was crawling with non-Jewish Jacobs, e.g., the storyteller Jacob Grimm and the mystical shoemaker/cosmologist Jakob Boehm (Bohemian), which is my name, before Anglicization.

The Journal must have a special nomenclature correspondent. Last year it was quick to notice the proliferation of Jalens in college basketball: “There are 65 Jalens, Jaylens, Jaylans and other versions of the name on Division I basketball teams,” the Journal explained, “because thousands of babies born during the 1990s heyday of Jalen Rose . . . are reaching adulthood.”

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Likewise they hopped on the astonishing “Mike Drop” of recent years. The name Michael’s preeminence started the year of my birth and lasted until 1998, bumped from the top spot only once, for David, in 1960. Michael now ranks number 12, behind William, James, Logan, and, yes, Jacob.

Even though Americans generally liked Mikes, they never elected one as president. “Should I have researched that first before announcing my candidacy?” our former governor Michael Dukakis asked the Journal. “No wonder I lost.”

What about the name Donald? There is not all that much to report. According to the Social Security Administration, Donald has experienced what economists call a secular decline since the turn of the century. Then it was 217, now 488. However, since 2016 Donald has held rock steady, stanching a 17-year consecutive decline.

If nothing else, our president is making “Donald” semi-great again, or at least somewhat less reviled. In certain quarters.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.