Tuesday, April 25, 2023

How did the name Cohen get so popular?

Cohen is a Jewish surname that has recently started trending as a name for boys in the US, Canada, and the UK. It’s problematic because it’s closely associated with a special religious group within Judaism. I’m not Jewish, so I’ll paraphrase a reddit comment from r/namenerds on the subject:

Cohen is offensive because it isn’t just a surname, it is a hereditary title. Cohens (Kohanim in Hebrew) were the priestly class during the era of the Temple in Jerusalem, and were responsible for directing daily religious practices. ... Kohanim traditionally have special responsibilities within Judaism: they cannot marry converts or divorcees, and cannot come into contact with dead bodies. Because it is a hereditary title associated with special privileges, no Jew would ever use this as a first name, and it is in extremely poor taste for gentiles (non-Jews) to use it for the same reasons. It comes across as being extremely ignorant of our culture at best (a lot of people have never met a Jewish person before) and intentionally antisemitic at worst.

I’ve always wondered how such a name could start trending. Then a movie title caught my eye while reading about actor Adam Baldwin (you know, Jayne from Firefly). In 1989 he starred in a thriller movie called Cohen and Tate. Baldwin plays the brash younger assassin named Tate who is teamed up with an older, more professional assassin called Mr. Cohen (played by Roy Schneider, you know, Chief Brody in Jaws). I only watched the trailer but his surname seems to be the only Jewish thing about the character. He is referred to as Mr. Cohen but also simply as Cohen. Of course I had to check the baby name stats. Did this movie inspire the Cohen baby name trend? 

The movie was released in the US in January of 1989, and that year Cohen was given to 8 boys in the US. But it was given to 13 boys the year before in 1988. Can a movie’s trailers and promos inspire a baby name? What other Cohen related media happened in 1988? Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen released his eighth and most popular album in the US, “I’m Your Man”. It’s not a slam dunk in name influence terms but after 1988 Cohen started slowly trending.

There was another Cohen kicking around at this time. Terry Pratchett’s second Discworld novel The Light Fantastic (1986) features a character named Cohen the Barbarian. He appears again in the 1994 book Interesting Times. He starred in his own book in 2001 in The Last Hero. I’ve read all these books and Cohen (or Ghenghiz Cohen) is a likable character. He’s a satirical take on the barbarian tropes in fantasy, and his name is a parody of Conan the Barbarian. He’s not Jewish. I can’t tell if Pratchett was subverting all sorts of Jewish stereotypes with this character name, or merely chose it for the puns. Either way by 2001 Cohen was being given to 50 boys a year in the US. 

Then it happened. The event. The first episode of the American teen drama The O.C. aired in August 2003. It stars Adam Brody as Seth Cohen, the awkward but good looking, nerdy but charming, outcast but lovable teenager who befriends the troubled Ryan Atwood after he’s taken in by his father. Seth is Jewish! Well, his father is Jewish. His mother is Catholic, named Kirsten (that's a Scottish version of Christian). I didn’t watch The O.C. but I’ve read articles by Jewish authors describing how refreshing it was to see regular Jewish customs just being part of the every day family life of the Cohen family. The O.C. was written by Josh Schwartz who is Jewish and based much of the character of Seth Cohen on himself. On the show, Seth is often referred by his surname, Cohen, by his girlfriend and friends. Adam Brody won multiple Teen Choice Awards for his portrayal. I’ve seen Seth described as the Jewish “manic pixie dream boy” which would explain some of his appeal. He may have normalized Cohen as a name and the name stats support that. 

The O.C. ran from 2003 to 2007. In 2003 Cohen was given to 89 boys, up from 72 the year before. In 2004 it jumped to 315, and by 2007 it was up to 774. The latest US statistics in 2021 had it being given to 1186 boys and 40 girls, ranking in the 200s. It’s not just the US either. In England and Wales it started out with 8 boys in 2003, and peaked at 167 boys in 2017. 

I’ve heard that people choosing Cohen aren’t aware that Cohen is a particularly Jewish surname. A couple of the early influences weren’t obviously Jewish but Seth Cohen definitely was and Leonard Cohen was open about his faith. Americans in media have had to change their Jewish surnames to avoid antisemitism because Jewish surnames were identifiable, or at least known by those with antisemitic beliefs. According to creator Josh Schwartz, the original family name for Seth's family was Needleman. "Originally, when I started writing it, the Cohens were called the Needlemans so they were even more Jewish,". It was 'scaled back' to Cohen.

There are now about 28,000 American kids born in the last 20 years with some variation of Cohen, Kohen, Coen or Koen as their name (another couple thousand in Canada, and over 3,500 in England and Wales). There are other origins for these different spellings. There are lots of Dutch cyclists named Koen or Coen, pronounced closer to kun or koon. Cohen is also found as an Irish surname but more often spelt Coen. I've heard mention Cohen is an Australian indigenous word for thunder but I can't find a good reference. I'm convinced their popularity now in the US has been lead by the influence of Seth Cohen of The O.C. .


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