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. :)
In the mid-1830s, the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan fought over a 468-square-mile strip of land containing Toledo. Their border dispute became known as the Toledo War.
During that period, tensions between the two regions ran high. At one point, for instance, the sheriff of Michigan’s Monroe County took to arresting “anyone in the Ohio strip who was promoting Toledo going to Ohio.”
His arrests included “one of Toledo’s founding fathers,” Benjamin Franklin Stickney. Originally from New England — and named after his mother’s uncle, the actual Benjamin Franklin — Stickney had moved his family westward in 1812 after being appointed as an Indian Agent at Fort Wayne.
By the time he arrived in Fort Wayne, Mr. Stickney already had fostered a reputation as an odd personality and independent thinker. The eccentric rap came largely from Mr. Stickney’s decision to name his sons One and Two.
His apparent reasoning, according to legend, was that the boys could name themselves when they grew older, but they never did. Mr. Stickney had wanted to name his three daughters after states, but his wife forbid it for the first two. He won out after the birth of his last child, born at Fort Wayne in 1817. He called her Indiana.
(One Stickney was born in 1803. Two Stickney was born in 1810. Between them were two daughters named Louisa and Mary. The fifth baby was indeed named after the state of Indiana, but her name was spelled “Indianna.”)
Stickney’s arrest angered his son Two, who ended up stabbing the Monroe County sheriff in the side with a pen knife in July of 1835. This non-fatal injury was the only casualty in the nearly-bloodless Toledo War.
The conflict finally ended in mid-1836, when the U.S. Congress proposed a compromise. Ohio would be given the disputed strip of land (and the city of Toledo), while Michigan would be given statehood and the remainder of the Upper Peninsula.
If you were paying attention to sports that summer, no doubt you’ll recall the source: Ecaterina Szabo, the Romanian gymnast who battled it out with Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. (Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country that did not boycott the ’84 Games.)
Ecaterina Szabo, 17 years old at the time, was the most successful competitor overall at the 1984 Summer Games, winning four golds and one silver. (In second place was American track and field athlete Carl Lewis.) Mary Lou Retton, who was 16 years old, won one gold, two silvers, and two bronzes.
But what most people remember is Retton coming from behind to beat Szabo in “the big one” — the women’s individual all-around competition — by a mere five-hundredths of a point. (The usage of the baby name Marylou increased in both 1984 and 1985 as a result.)
Ecaterina Szabo, an ethnic Hungarian, was born with the first name Katalin. She told Romanian news site Transylvania Now that her name was changed (from the Hungarian form of Katherine to the Romanian form of Katherine) in order to mask her background:
It happened in 1980 when she participated at the Youth European Championship in Lyon. “This was the place where I arrived as Katalin, and left as Ecaterina,” she remembers. “The name change happened without my knowledge. Actually I didn’t have the chance to realize it, since I never even saw my passport.”
What are your thoughts on the baby name Ecaterina?
It was very strange, I went to school, and I remember that you had to do these tests to find out what set you’re in — how clever you are. I put down “Kit Harington,” and they looked at me like I was completely stupid, and they said, “No, you’re Christopher Harington, I’m afraid.” It was only then I learnt my actual name. That was kind of a bizarre existential crisis for an 11-year-old to have, but in the end I always stuck with Kit, because I felt that’s who I was. I’m not really a “Chris.”
Movie stars seem to have an impact on naming conventions too. The median [age of women named] Raveena, Karishma, Twinkle and Kajol are between 20 and 23 today, which, given the two movie stars’ debuts in the early 90s, makes sense. The median Aishwarya is 21, which is roughly how many years ago Ms. Rai Bachchan won the Miss World title.
Among men, there has been a sharp rise in the popularity of Shahrukh and Sachin, both peaks coinciding with their debuts on film screens and the cricket field respectively. Amitabh is declining in popularity after hitting a peak among those who were born in the mid 70s.
In a recent study, we turned name analytics toward one of Ireland’s big historical questions: why were the Irish so reluctant to follow couples elsewhere in reducing the size of their families?
We found something surprising. Many of our prior expectations were confirmed: professionals had fewer children than laborers, families were smaller in cities, and Catholics had more children than Protestants. The single strongest indicator that a couple had a large family, however, was whether or not they picked traditional and common names for their children. When parents chose names like Patrick, Mary and John, they typically had more children. Parents with fewer children relied more on uncommon names like Eric, Sam, Hazel and Irene. Irrespective of religion, naming was linked to family size and the pattern even held for the Irish in America.
Irish couples were particularly likely to buck trends as they were exposed to cities. Urban couples were not only the first to sharply curtail childbearing, but were also more likely to experiment with new and unusual names. This was a sharp departure from large rural Irish families, where successive generations were named after parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Actor Josh Brolin’s explanation of his daughter’s name, Chapel Grace (b. 2020):
Everywhere we have traveled the one place Kathryn and I always found a great solace in were chapels. Not being particularly religious, but a God feeling heavily inundating our lives, chapels have always been the sanctuaries where we felt most connectedly free to give thanks. Chapel Grace is, to us, a manifestation of that celestial feeling that was always felt as we meandered and knelt.
Finally, two unrelated quotes from a 2008 Mental Floss article about undesirable names. Here’s the first:
In June 2001, a total solar eclipse was about to cross southern Africa. To prepare, the Zimbabwean and Zambian media began a massive astronomy education campaign focused on warning people not to stare at the Sun. Apparently, the campaign worked. The locals took a real liking to the vocabulary, and today, the birth registries are filled with names like Eclipse Glasses Banda, Totality Zhou, and Annular Mchombo.
And here’s the second:
When Napoleon seized the Netherlands in 1810, he demanded that all Dutchmen take last names, just as the French had done decades prior. Problem was, the Dutch had lived full and happy lives with single names, so they took absurd surnames in a show of spirited defiance. These included Naaktgeboren (born naked), Spring int Veld (jump in the field), and Piest (pisses). Sadly for their descendants, Napoleon’s last-name trend stuck, and all of these remain perfectly normal Dutch names today.