Self-taught inventor and businessman William P. “Bill” Lear (1902-1978) is best remembered as the founder of Learjet, the first company to manufacture compact business jets.
In the world of baby names, though, he has an entirely different claim to fame: He named a daughter Shanda to create the pun-name Shanda Lear (read: chandelier).
So, what’s the story?
Bill met his fourth wife, Moya Olsen, in the mid-1930s. They met through Moya’s father, vaudeville comedian John “Ole” Olsen.
They had their first date (drinks at the Stork Club) in 1938, and tied the knot in early 1942.
Bill, who already had three children (Mary Louise, William, and Patti) from previous marriages, went on to have four more children with Moya.
Their first was a boy named John, born in December of 1942.
Their second, born in 1944, was a girl — and she was indeed named Shanda. Years later, Moya recounted:
My father said if you have a girl, her name has to be Shanda. S-H-A-N-D-A. Shanda Lear. And if it’s a boy, you name it Gonda and if you’re not sure, it’s Lava.
Their last two children were named David (b. 1948) and Tina (b. 1954).
During an interview in 2007, Shanda Lear mentioned her name while describing her father, who she said was a “quixotic, outspoken and charismatic man who had a great sense of humor. He thought it was quite funny naming me Shanda Lear.”
The simplest answer is “Biblical names,” but that’s not the full answer.
Because certain Biblical names are preferred over others, and Biblical names aren’t used exclusively.
Plus, the prevalence of a name could vary depending upon the specific Amish settlement you’re talking about.
I’ve gathered about 100 of the most common Amish names below. Before we get into specifics, though, here’s a bit of background on the Amish…
Who are the Amish?
The Amish are an Anabaptist group that intentionally maintain a degree of separation from the wider world. They wear plain clothing, eschew modern conveniences (like cars), and partake in traditional occupations such as farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, and (for women) homemaking.
The Anabaptist movement began in Europe in the 1520s, at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptists were particularly known for the practice of adult baptism. They were also opposed to war, and they believed in the separation of church and state.
Considered radicals, the Anabaptists were widely persecuted.
In 1693, the Swiss branch of the Anabaptist movement (a.k.a., the Swiss Brethren) experienced a schism. Those who followed reformer Jacob Amman came to be known as the Amish, whereas those who did not came to be known as the Mennonites (after Dutchman Menno Simons, one of the original Anabaptist leaders).
In the early 1700s, many Amish (and Mennonites) immigrated to the New World — specifically to the Province of Pennsylvania, which had been founded upon the principle of religious freedom.
Today, over 367,000 Amish live in the U.S., and roughly two-thirds of them reside in three states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
Common Amish names
The most comprehensive source of Amish names I came across was also the oldest, so let’s go through all the sources chronologically.
In 1960, researcher Elmer L. Smith published data on the most common male and female names among the Amish of southeastern Pennsylvania from 1890 to 1956.
The 1,337 Amish males in the study shared a total of just 72 different first names. Over a quarter of the males had one of the top three names (John, Amos, or Jacob), and over 81% had one of the top 20 names.
The 1,356 Amish females in the study shared even fewer first names: only 55. Over a quarter of the females had one of the top three names (Mary, Sarah, or Annie), and over 88% had a top-20 name.
According to Smith’s research, these were the 20 most common names per gender (plus their frequency of usage):
Amish female names
Amish male names
*Annie was ranked below Sarah in the research paper, but this seems to be a typo, given the percentages.
Smith also wrote the following:
Other given names for males may reflect the important place the martyred forefathers hold in the minds of the sect members. The given name Menno is frequently found; this honors Menno Simmons [sic] an early leader of the plain sects. Ammon is also quite common, and is traced to Jacob Amman for whom the Amish sect is named; otherwise given names are from the Bible.
(Menno, a form of the Dutch name Meine, can be traced back to the Old High German word magan, meaning “strength.” The occupational surname Amman(n), which was derived from the German word amtmann, originally referred to someone employed as an official or administrator.)
A couple of years after Smith’s study came out, Dr. William Schreiber (a professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio) published a book about the Amish of east-central Ohio. In one paragraph, he mentioned some of the names he’d encountered:
One learns here that the good old biblical names are still common with the Amish but are in competition with modern or more euphonious ones. The names of the children of large families are often a study in contrasts. In one family there are, for example, Benjamin, Samuel, Isaac, Stephen, John, Israel, Christ, Barbara, Mary, Hannah, Annie, Mattie, and Lizzie. Another family has chosen these names for its children: Sarah, Lizzie, Samuel, Benjamin, John, Annie, Marie, Daniel, David, Enos, Sylvia, and Malinda. Then there are three Amish brothers named Isaac, Levi, and Elmer. One wonders how Vesta, Delila, Dena, Saloma, Drusilla, or Verba, or boys’ names like Junie, Venus, or Aquilla came into strict Christian families?
Speaking of east-central Ohio, Barbara Yoder Hall — who was born in 1940 and grew up with ten siblings in the Amish community of Holmes County — recalled in her book Born Amish (1980) the following first names:
First names for girls are usually Cora, Mattie, Annie, Lizzie, Barbara, Fannie, Katie, Mary, Naomi, Emma, Jemima, Ella, Sarah, Levina and Mandy.
First names for boys are John, Mose, Ferdinand, Dannie, Sam, Amos, Albert, Emanual, Levi, Rudy, Enos, Eli, Jacob and Joseph.
Now for a pair of sources from the digital age…
The website Amish America, run by Erik Wesner (who is not Amish, but has visited Amish communities in 15 different states), lists the following names as being common among the Amish. He found many of the male names in Raber’s Almanac, which “contains a listing of Amish church ministers,” while many of the female names came from various church directories.
Common Amish female names
Common Amish male names
Elizabeth Emma Fannie Hannah Katie Linda Lizzie Lovina/Lavina Martha Mary Miriam Naomi Rebecca Ruby Ruth Sadie Sarah Waneta
Abram Amos Atlee Eli Elmer Harley Isaac Jacob John Lavern Leroy Mark Melvin Mervin Samuel Vernon Wayne Willis
Some of Erik’s commentary…
Eli: “You see a lot of Elis among Amish, but not many Elijahs.”
Leroy: “Seems to be more common in Midwestern communities.”
Lizzie: “Lizzie is a popular form in some Pennsylvania communities.”
Naomi: “Amish, at least in Lancaster County, pronounce this ‘Nay-oh-mah.'”
Ruby: “Quite a few Rubies in northern Indiana.”
Vernon: “[P]retty common in places like northern Indiana and Holmes County, Ohio.”
Finally, according to the blog Amish Heritage, written by a woman named Anna (who grew up Amish in Pennsylvania), common Amish names include…
Common Amish female names
Common Amish male names
Amanda Anna/Annie Barbara Betty Clara Edna Elizabeth Esther Fannie Hannah Lavina Lena Lydia Malinda Martha Mary Miriam Naomi Priscilla Rachel Rebecca Ruth Sadie Sarah Susie
Aaron Abner Abram Amos Benuel Christian/Christ Daniel David Eli Elmer Emmanuel Henry Isaac Jacob John Jonas Leroy Lloyd Mark Melvin Mervin Moses Omar Paul Samuel Steven/Stephen Vernon
Both websites noted that some Amish communities (particularly New Order Amish communities) have recently started giving their children less traditional first names.
So how do these lists square with what we’ve observed in the U.S. baby name data?
It’s hard to tell with historically popular names like Mary and John, but we can see some interesting things when we focus on relatively rare names.
For instance, the names Atlee, Benuel, Delila, Dena, Lavina, Menno, Saloma, and Willis have all been mentioned recently in my posts about names with a high degree of state specificity (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). As you’d expect, they were associated with the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and/or Indiana. (Benuel, in fact, has only ever appeared in the Pennsylvania data — going all the way back to the 1940s.)
Several of the other names — including Amos, Elam, Fannie, Malinda, and Mervin — saw higher usage in Pennsylvania than in any other state in 2021.
I was surprised that none of my sources listed the name Barbie. Most of them mentioned Barbara (one of them was even named Barbara), and all of them included nicknames (like Lizzie). But Barbara’s diminutive form was curiously absent — even though most of its usage occurs in Pennsylvania:
Girls named Barbie, U.S.
Girls named Barbie, Penn.
Rhoda and Mahlon are two more names that I somewhat expected to see.
Ammon is a very interesting case, because the name also has significance to an entirely different religious group: the Mormons. (The Book of Mormon features two prominent figures named Ammon.) From the 1910s to the 1960s, the name Ammon — much like Benuel — only appeared in the Pennsylvania data. Since the 1980s, though, the state with the largest number of baby boys named Ammon has been Utah.
What are your thoughts on the first names used by the Amish? Which of the above do you like the most?
And, for anyone out there with close ties to an Amish family/community: What other names would you add to this list?
P.S. This post is dedicated to my delightful commenters alex and Andrea. :)