About ten years ago, on a Jewish parenting board I frequented, a non-Jewish woman stopped by to ask a question. Surprised to find out that the baby name she had picked had a Jewish connotation, she hoped to learn more about Cohen.
I explained to her that Cohen has an illustrious past. A cohen is a member of the priestly class, descended from Aaron. Even today there is a certain amount of prestige associated with it in religious circles. Cohen remains among the most common Jewish last names among Jews whether of European and North African descent. I told the mother-to-be it’s likely her son might need to explain that he’s not Jewish, and that some Jews might find the name offensive.
The woman responded that she already had chosen the name, after a producer in a TV credits for a television show. She and her husband loved the name as soon as they saw it, and she was asking about its origins only out of curiosity. They would not consider changing it.
It turns out that this couple anticipated a trend. Two major baby name websites—Nameberry and Appellation Mountain—have discussed Cohen, which ranked 360 in the United States in 2010. It made the top 100 in Canada. Both articles mention that Jews may find it offensive.
The idea bothered me when I first encountered it. But baby names have gotten so bizarre that Cohen has become a rather mild choice. In contrast with “Like” or “Aleph,” least Cohen has served as a name of some kind. When I posted about the conversation to a forum that makes fun of baby names, someone responded that names like Grynbyrg O’Connor would be next. Now that’s offensive.
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