20 Jul 2021
Blog

Evolution and Formation of Hebrew Names and Nicknames

Like many other languages and cultures, Hebrew names have been influenced by languages of countries where Jewish people lived, but also by the fact that within the last half century, Hebrew became a living language again, with native speakers creating their own unique naming traditions. This blog will focus on Jewish names in Hebrew and then dive deeper into how nicknames are formed from those names.

Historical Foreign Language Influences on Jewish Names: Yiddish

The Yiddish language, developed from around 1000 CE, shares the Hebrew alphabet. It was the dominant language among Jewish people living in Europe, and combined Hebrew with elements of German, Polish, Slavic, French, and other language sources.1 Hebrew was widely reserved for prayers and religious studies.

Examples of Hebrew Names and Corresponding Yiddish Versions2
Hebrew
Vernacular (Yiddish)
Avraham Aberke, Aberl, Aberlein, Avrom, Fromel, Everman, Evril
David Tevel, Tevele
Elchanan Elkin, Elkan
Elazar Lasar, Lazar, Lazarus
Eliezer Leeser, Leser, Leyser
Shmuel Shmulik, Shmelke, Sanvil, Zanvil, Zangvil
Shlomo Salaman, Salmon, Zalman, Zalkin, Zalkind
Yaakov Yekel, Yukel, Yokel, Yankel, Yakovl, Kopel, Kopelman
Yehuda Judel, Udel, Yudke, Yudko
Yisrael Isril, Iserl, Srulik, Srul, Srol
Yitzchak Eisig, Eisnik, Eisman, Itzig, Itzik, Itzl, Zekl, Sekel
Yosef Yosel, Yosi, Yos, Yesse, Jessel, Yoske

Foreign Origin Names in Hebrew

Like any other language, Hebrew transliterates foreign names as closely as possible to the original. Here is a sample of some foreign names written in Hebrew:

  • Russian: Alexei אלכסיי, Vladimir ולדימיר, Alexander אלכסנדר
  • English: John ג’ון
  • Spanish: Gabriella גבריאלה
  • Arabic: Mohammad מוחמד

The Impact of Native Speakers of Hebrew

What might be the most interesting twist is that although immigrants to Israel did not speak modern Hebrew, they chose traditional names from the Bible, such as David, Rachel, and Benjamin. However, the first generation of children born in Israel, who grew up as native Hebrew speakers, created more modern-sounding names, like Amit, Shaked, and Eyal, which are Hebrew words in the Bible based on names of plants, animals, or places.3

Shaked (שקד) is a unisex name meaning “almond.”‎ Eyal ( אייל‎) is a boy’s name meaning “deer, ” and the girl’s name Carmel (כרמל) comes from Mount Carmel.4

Nowadays, Orthodox Jewish households tend to give their children Biblical names which are viewed as old-fashioned names given during their grandparents’ times.

Hebrew Nicknames and Modern Naming Trends

This section about Hebrew nicknames draws heavily (except as noted) on the published research of Dr. Ruth Burstein5 of David Yellin College of Education (Jerusalem, Israel) in the article “Tzipora Livni and Shauli Mofaz: On Nicknames in Hebrew in Israel’s 60 Years.” Burstein examined 750 nicknames gathered from questionnaires, school yearbooks, literature, newspapers, written and televised media, obituaries, and the internet, and interviewed 25 adults and 25 teenagers.

She found that until about 60 years ago, parents named their children after deceased relatives, and most of these names were from the Bible: the three Patriarchs (Abraham אברהם, Isaac יצחק, and Jacob יעקב); the sons of Jacob (e.g. Reuben ראובן, Simeon שמעון, and Benjamin בנימין); certain kings (Solomon שלמה and David דוד); and certain prophets (Samuel שמואל and Ezekiel יחזקאל).

Parents created nicknames for these Biblical names for many of the usual reasons that nicknames are created in almost every language. Nicknames might be easier to say or terms of affection for children, or which show friendship and close ties. Names which are older or less fashionable might get a nickname that feels more young and modern.

A few examples of nicknames for Biblical names include:

  • Jabob → Kobie, Yaki
  • Benjamin → Bennie
  • David → Dudi, Dudu
  • Isaac → Itzik, Tzakhi

Certain names, such as Yekhezkel and Yirmiyahu, received nicknames because they were long and heavy with consonants and vowels. Interestingly, some of these “heavy” names are not more complicated to pronounce than modern names (like Itamar), according to Dr. Burstein.

Her list of common nicknames includes:

  • Yosef Beilin → Yossi Beilin
  • Tzipora Livni → Tzipi Livni
  • Ariel Sharon → Arik Sharon
  • Benjamin Netanyahu → Bibi Netanyahu
  • Benjamin Ganz → Bennie Ganz
  • Avraham → Avi
  • Reuven → Rubi

In Israel, political and social leaders are often called by their childhood nicknames, which is attributed to the country’s “notoriously close-knit, informal nature, where personal boundaries are thin and everyone seems to meddle in everyone else’s business.”6

Examples include:

  • Isaac Herzog (opposition leader) → Bougie
  • Moshe Yaalon (defense minister) → Bogie
  • Avraham Shochat (former finance minister) → Baiga
  • Eliezer Zandberg (former cabinet minister) → Moody (short for Hamoody, “cutie”)
  • Shlomo Lahat (Tel Aviv mayor) → Cheech
  • Rehavam Zeevi (former cabinet minister) → Gandhi
  • Rafael Eitan (former military chief) → Raful

Nicknames showing affection often had the stress (in bold and underlined) on the last syllable:

  • Michal → Michali
  • Omer → Omeronet
  • Maya → Mayush

Dating from the creation of Israel in 1948, parents picked names from the Bible that felt less old-fashioned, such as Itay (איתי), Omri (עמרי), and Osnat (אסנת), instead of Shmuel and Avraham. These new names inspired fewer nicknames because they were chosen for their pleasing sounds. Stressing the first syllable was the style of those in “exile mode” — largely influenced by Yiddish. In modern Hebrew, the preference is to stress the last syllable.

For example:

  • Eitan versus Eitan
  • Daniel versus Daniel
  • Ela versus Ela

Many modern Israeli names are used for boys and girls, such as:

  • Yuval
  • Omer
  • Yarden
  • Gil

Examining the 10 most popular baby names reveals this trend toward more modern-sounding names, first in girls’ names and more slowly in boys’ names.

Popular Jewish Girls’ Names 1940-2000 in Israel7

*Modern names in boldface

Until 1940
1940-1960
1960-1980
1980-1999
2000 and onward
1. Sarah
2. Rachel
3. Ester
4. Hanna
5. Miriam
6. Rivka
7. Leah
8. Khaya
9. Rosa
10. Shoshana
1. Ester
2. Rachel
3. Sarah
4. Miriam
5. Hanna
6. Shoshana
7. Rivka
8. Rut
9. Yehudit
10. Leah
1. Michal
2. Rachel
3. Ester
4. Yael
5. Anat
6. Miriam
7. Keren
8. Ronit
9. Orly
10. Merav
1. Adi
2. Rachel
3. Michal
4. Yael
5. Sarah
6. Shani
7. Noah
8. Ester
9. Khen
10. Hila
1. Noa
2. Shira
3. Maya
4. Tamar
5. Yael
6. Sarah
7. Talya
8. Michal
9. Adi
10. Roni
Popular Jewish Boys’ Names 1940-20008
Until 1940
1940-1960
1960-1980
1980-1999
2000 and onward
1. Yossef
2. Avraham
3. Moshe
4. Yaakov
5. Issac
6. David
7. Haim
8. Shlomo
9. Shmuel
10. Mordechai
1. Yossef
2. David
3. Moshe
4. Yaakov
5. Avraham
6. Issac
7. Michael
8. Haim
9. Shlomo
10. Eliyahu
1. David
2. Moshe
3. Yossef
4. Avraham
5. Yaakov
6. Issac
7. Michael
8. Alexander
9. Haim
10. Shlomo
1. David
2. Daniel
3. Moshe
4. Yossef
5. Avraham
6. Yaakov
7. Roy
8. Isaac
9. Michael
10. Shay
1. Noam
2. Itay
3. Ori
4. Daniel
5. David
6. Yossef
7. Moshe
8. Yehonatan
9. Ido
10. Avraham

*The top 20-30 names for 1960-1980 included Eyal, Ofer, Ilan, Shay, Ronen, Oren, and Daniel.
**The top 20-30 names for 1980-1999 included Guy, Idan, Lior, Itay, Or, Asaf, and Tal.

How Hebrew Nicknames are Formed

Burstein lists several patterns of nickname formation. Some nicknames may be associated with more than one formal name.

Nicknames formed by adding suffixes

Some nicknames are created by adding a suffix borrowed from a foreign language, mostly Eastern European languages, that give the nickname a foreign/exile sound and feeling.

Examples of Eastern European origin suffixes:

  1. Suffix *Leh: (from Eastern Europe, Yiddish)
    1. Avraham → Avram-Leh
    2. Tovah → Tovah-Leh
    3. Sarah → Sarah-Leh
  2. Suffix *Keh (also old-fashioned, Eastern European from Polish, Czech, and Russian)
    1. Haim → Haim-Keh
    2. Nesher → Nesher-Keh
    3. Shay → Shay-Keh
  3. Suffix *Kah (from Polish, Czech, Russian)
    1. Zvi → Zvi-Kah
    2. David → David-Kah
  4. Suffix *ik (from Polish, Czech, Russian)
    1. Aryeh → Ar-ik
    2. Ze’ev → Zev-ik

Other foreign language suffixes include *Ki, *cha, *inka, *ita, *sha, *shka.

Examples of Israeli suffixes:

    1. Suffix *a, with or without changes to the original name
      1. Tamar → Tamara
      2. Rut → Ruta
    2. Suffix *on → for boys, sometimes as a diminutive
      1. Haim → Haimon
    3. Suffix *onet → for girls, sometimes as a diminutive
      1. Ya’ara → Ya’aronet
    4. Suffix *ush → playful and affectionate
      1. Liron → Lironush
      2. Lia → Liush
    5. Suffix *i → often affectionate
      1. Yarden → Yardeni
      2. Elad → Eladi
Nicknames formed by dropping/changing/adding consonants and syllables

Sometimes suffixes are also added, as in these examples below.

Example 1. Creating nicknames from removing consonants and syllables from the original name, optionally adding a suffix:

  • Dafna → Daf, Dafi
  • Shoshana → Shosh
  • Eliyahu → Eli
  • Avshalom → Eli

Example 2. Creating nicknames from changing consonants and/or syllables in the original names + dropping syllables and consonants:

  • Yair → Yaya
  • Shlomo → Momo

Example 3. Creating nicknames from one-syllable names by repeating a sound:

  • Dan → Dandan

In the same way that language is organic and ever-changing, responding to new ideas and environments, the evolution and influences on Hebrew names is like a window into the history of where the Jewish people have lived in the world.

Hebrew support in the Rosette® name translation endpoint has been available since version 1.17.0. And with our latest release of Rosette 1.19.1, name matching in Hebrew is also supported. Please also refer to our blog post about Hebrew transliteration standards, and give the endpoint a whirl by signing up for a free trial account of Rosette Cloud.
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End Notes

1. Esterson, Prof. G. L. “THE GIVEN NAMES DATA BASES (GNDBs)” Ra’anana, Israel
2. Ibid Esterson
3. Interview with native Hebrew speaker Lital Ravid, Jan. 29, 2021.
4. Ibid Easton, “This tendency for Jews in the religiously observant end of the spectrum to emphasize the use of Hebrew given names, while Jews at the secular end of the spectrum emphasize local secular names, continued throughout Jewish history and exists today.”
5. Burstein, Ruth, “Tzipora Livni and Shauli Mofaz: On Nicknames in Hebrew in Israel’s 60 Years,” circa 2008-2009.
6. Associated Press, “Bougie, Bibi and Gandhi: A guide to Israeli politicians’ weird nicknames,” Haaretz.com, Dec. 3, 2013
7. Israel Central Bureau of Statistics
8. Ibid