There are not many names that can inspire rational people to burst into song, but I have one of them. When other people learn that my real name is not Jeremy, but Jeremiah, they invariably sing that insipid tune:
Jeremiah was a bullfrog
Was a good friend of mine
I never understood a single world he said
But I helped him a-drink his wine.
In fact, Jeremiah was not a bullfrog, but a biblical prophet. And Three Dog Night was telling the truth when they claimed that they “never understood a single world he said,” because if they did, they wouldn’t have titled their song “Joy to the World.”
Jeremiah (“The Weeping Prophet”) is famous for prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews. In the Hebrew Bible, God called to Jeremiah in 626 BC and said that the Jewish people had forsaken him by worshiping false idols. God instructed Jeremiah to proclaim that unless they repented, the Israelites would be pillaged by a foreign nation and exiled from their land as punishment. The people of Israel did not appreciate Jeremiah’s prophesies of doom; they beat him, put him in stocks, threw him in a cistern, and, finally, imprisoned him. “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” he cried (Jeremiah 12:14). In the ultimate “I told you so” moment, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 587 BC, just as Jeremiah had predicted. They freed Jeremiah from prison, but destroyed the Israelite nation and carried away the people to Babylon.
All of which begs the obvious question: Why did my parents still name me Jeremiah? Well, they knew that they wanted a biblical name for me. Since Ashkenazi Jewish custom discourages naming children after living relatives, Benjamin, my maternal grandfather’s Hebrew name, was out. So was Abraham, the full name of my paternal great-uncle Vemi. My parents liked the name Jeremiah, but were concerned about its negative connotations—being the prophet of doom and all—so my dad asked his father, a part-time rabbi (and full-time physics professor), for his opinion. “No,” my grandfather replied, “Jeremiah was the prophet of redemption.” Indeed, as the Babylonian army closed in on Jerusalem and the future looked grim, Jeremiah bought a plot of land in the city, a symbolic gesture of faith that the land would eventually be worth something again. Jeremiah died in Egypt, but he was posthumously vindicated once more when, after a 49-year exile, the Persian king Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Israel in 538 BC.
The prophet Jeremiah’s Hebrew nameyir’mi’ahu means “Yahweh [God] exalts.” Jeremiah is an example of a theophoric name, meaning that it embeds the name of a god. Christopher (Christ-bearer) is another of this sort. Such names were common in the Ancient Middle East, because they were thought to invoke the protection of the deity; more Biblical examples include Samuel (“name of God”), Daniel (“God is my judge”), and Jonathan (“whom Yahweh gave”).
During the Middle Ages, the shorter form Jeremy emerged as an English alternative to the name Jeremiah. Countless parents have since been faced with an onerous choice: do they name their baby boy Jeremy or Jeremiah? Until relatively recently in America, Jeremiah as an official name may have been uncommon, but Jeremy was almost unheard of. In the 1970s, both names shot up in popularity, peaking in 1977—Jeremy at #16 and Jeremiah at #68. The anglicized upstart had eclipsed its biblical cousin. Both names then fell in popularity through the 1980s, but Jeremiah turned around in 1997 and, at #52, is three times more popular today than Jeremy is. (Most of those Jeremiahs, I should note, probably call themselves Jeremy like I do.)
I have always been slightly embarrassed about the fact that my full name is Jeremiah and not Jeremy. And for good reason, too. As I was talking to a friend last week about this very essay, a nearby classmate interrupted: “Your real name is JEREMIAH?” “Yeah,” I said. “What?” “Wow,” she intoned, audibly impressed, as if I had revealed that I had been raised by a pack of wolves. “You just don’t seem like a Jeremiah at all. I mean—never mind.”
The peculiar contradiction about the name Jeremiah is that it has two very different connotations: one folksy, one pretentious. On the one hand, Jeremiah, in its Old Testament glory, brings to mind images from a bygone era of a bearded man in overalls sitting on the porch of his cabin in backwoods Appalachia with a piece of straw in his mouth and a shotgun in his hand for the double purposes of warding off potential suitors from his eight daughters and scaring away the “revenuers” who are coming to shut down his illegal moonshine still. This Jeremiah has undoubtedly been featured in many a History Channel documentary in black-and-white Depression-era photographs while “Ashokan Farewell” plays mournfully in the background and the narrator laments the loss of this “quintessentially American way of life.”
But on the other hand, in the 21st century, the name Jeremiah sounds like a pompous relic—rather like Theodore instead of Ted or Frederick instead of Fred. Jeremy is down-to-earth and hip; Jeremiah is pretentious and stuffy. Jeremy is the America to Jeremiah’s England, the Perry to Jeremiah’s Romney, the Silicon Valley to Jeremiah’s Wall Street, the Pepsi to Jeremiah’s Coca-Cola. Jeremy is the guy you’d want to have a beer with. Jeremiah always fastens the top button on his button-down shirt, even when he’s not wearing a tie. I have never actually met anyone who goes by Jeremiah, but if I did, I would feel a strong inclination to punch him in the face. I most recently encountered the Jeremiah problem at college interviews, when my interviewer, who had been given my official full name, greeted me with “Hello, Jeremiah, nice to meet you.” Jeremiah is such a pompous name, I would squirm and think to myself, but I cannot correct you.
Not that pretentiousness is always a bad thing in a name. In fact, the fanciness of Jeremiah was precisely why my parents chose it as my official name in the first place. Even though they intended to call me Jeremy, they wanted me to be able to fall back on Jeremiah “in case [I] become a judge.” I have to agree. “The Honorable Jeremiah M. Cohen” is no doubt a respected federal jurist and prominent legal scholar. “Judge Jeremy” settles small claims on Court TV.