James has ancient roots in Hebrew. It's a variation on the name Hebrew name Yaakov (Jacob) – which became Iacomus in Latin and eventually James in English.
James and Jacob mean "one who takes by the heel" or, more plainly, "supplanter." In the Bible story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob held onto the heel of his first-born twin brother, Esau, during their birth.
The name James appears prominently in the Bible, too. There are two apostles named James, as well as the brother of Jesus, who's sometimes called James the Just.
James is said to have made its way into the English-speaking world via Old French. Beginning in the 13th century, this name went on to be borne by no less than 13 monarchs. This includes the 16th- and early-17th-century Scottish king James VI, also known as James I of England, who ascended the Scottish throne in 1567 at the tender age of 13 months. This same King James is most often remembered today for his connection with the King James Bible, which he authorized and democratized.
Fast-forward five centuries, and you'll find the royal namesake lives on with pro basketball king LeBron James. In fact, James is one of the most enduringly popular names for boys in the Western world.
There are many different cultural takes on the name James, including:
In the United States, James has been in the top 20 names for boys on the Social Security Administration (SSA) list for more than 100 years. Exemplifying this remarkable popularity, six U.S. presidents were named James: Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan, Garfield, and Carter.
The staying power of James and its variations lies in part in the fact that it's traditional, refined, and, well, short. Though only one syllable, there are of course a few common nickname choices, such as the more down-home Jim, laid-back and youthful Jimmy, playful and gender-neutral Jamie, Southern-sounding Jem, and rather artistic Jay.
James is currently way down the popularity list for baby girls – in the low 2,000s – though that could change. Actress Blake Lively and her husband, actor Ryan Reynolds, welcomed a baby daughter in 2014 and named her James after his father.
Gender-neutral options similar to James include Jamie, Jay, and Jae. There are also feminine names that are similar to James, including Jamesina, Jamelia, Jemma, Jacinda, and Jemima.
Since the reign of the very first King James, there has been no shortage of noteworthy folks bearing this name. It's a name that's still going strong, thousands of years later. Not too shabby!
James, son of Zebedee : Patron saint of Spain; one of the twelve apostles of Jesus
James, son of Alphaeus : Another of the twelve apostles of Jesus
James I the Conqueror : Early 13-century Spanish king of Aragon
James I of Scotland : 15th century King of Scots; spent 20 years imprisoned in the Tower of London
King James VI of Scotland/James I of England and Ireland : Only son of Mary Queen of Scots
James Baldwin : Essayist and novelist; part of the American Civil Rights Movement
James (Jimmy) Carter : 39th president of the United States; awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002
Captain James Cook : 18-century English explorer, British Royal Navy captain; helmed the HMS Endeavor
James Madison Jr. : Fourth president of the United States of America and The Federalist Papers collaborator
James Joyce : 19-century Irish novelist; author of Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake
Henry James : Late-19th- and early-20th-century American novelist; author of Portrait of a Lady
James Dean : American film actor; starred in the film Rebel without a Cause; died tragically at age 24 in a car accident
James McAvoy : Scottish actor; Golden Globe nominee for his role in the film Atonement
Jimmy Fallon : comedian; host of The Tonight Show
James Brown : American singer, songwriter, known as "the Godfather of Soul"
James Earl Jones : American actor; played Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy
James Cleveland (Jesse) Owens : American track and field athlete, four-time gold medalist
LeBron James : Los Angeles Lakers basketball star
James Buchanan : former US President
James Earl Carter : former US President
James Dean : actor
James Madison : former US President
James Pold : former US President
James Belushi : actor
James Blunt : musician
James McAvoy : actor
James Franco : actor
James Patterson : author
James Mason : actor
James Maslow : actor
James Hetfield : musician