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On Australia Day, the Australian of the Year for 2014 was announced, and it was AFL footballer Adam Goodes, who plays for the Sydney Swans.

Adam is a distinguished player who has experienced a great deal of success in his field, and is very active in the Sydney Indigenous community, providing leadership and guidance to troubled Indigenous youth, including those in youth detention. He has also started an Indigenous football academy, and he and his cousin Michael O’Loughlin founded the Goodes O’Loughlin Foundation which focuses on education, employment and healthy life choices. Adam plans to use his profile as Australian of the Year to help raise awareness of the push for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

Adam is well known to almost everyone, even those with no religious background, as the first human mentioned in the Bible. He was created by God out of earth, and placed in the paradisical Garden of Eden with his companion Eve. However, they were expelled from the Garden after disobeying God’s commands, and went on to become founders of the human race. Adam is also seen as the first human in Islam, which regards Adam as a prophet, and the first Muslim.

In Hebrew, āḏām is the word for “human”, and the creation story in Genesis uses this word for “mankind”, “humanity”, “a man”, and the person named Adam, in an ambiguous and complex play of meaning. The word comes from a Semitic root meaning “red, fair, handsome”, and is also the masculine form of the Hebrew word adamah, meaning “ground, earth”, related both to the word for “red”, and the word for “blood”. In Arabic, Adam means “made from the earth”.

Putting this all together, the impression one gets from the name is that Adam is a signifier for all men, and all humans, a handsome man created from the red earth, the colour suggesting that of life-giving blood (the clay become flesh), and perhaps even implying that his skin tone was meant to be a coppery, reddish-brown – which seems reasonable given the story’s Middle Eastern origins.

Genesis emphasises Adam’s connection to the earth, for God set Adam to work on the land, to get his hands dirty, scratched by thorns in order to eat and survive. God’s curse was From dust you were made and to dust you will return, meaning that humans were condemned to mortality (still echoed in the funeral service, ashes to ashes, dust to dust). Adam is separated from nature by his humanity, yet inextricably part of nature and still tied to the earth and his earthy instincts – a succinct précis of the human condition.

The first historical person named Adam we know of is an Assyrian king named Adamu, who lived more than 4000 years ago (it is probably worth mentioning that the Babylonian creation story, many centuries older than Genesis, has the same main features, and there the first man is named Lullu, meaning “man, human being”; when the Assyrians copied the story, they called the first man Adami, possibly from the Akkadian for “to make”).

The name Adam came into common use in Britain in the Middle Ages, and became more popular after the Protestant Reformation. It has particularly strong ties to Scotland, perhaps because it was used to Anglicise the Irish name Áedán (an older form of Aidan), traditional amongst the royal houses and nobility of medieval Scotland.

Although in rare use early in the twentieth century, Adam only began charting in Australia in the 1940s. It raced up the charts during the 1950s to make #51 for the 1960s. It peaked in the 1980s at #10, and is still in the Top 100. It is #66 nationally, #55 in New South Wales, #57 in Victoria, #99 in Queensland, #44 in Western Australia, #84 in Tasmania, and #60 in the Australian Capital Territory.

Adam is a modern classic, yet it is an ancient name – the oldest name in the Book! Brief, strong and primal, it is earth and blood, flesh and bone, birth and death, innocence and guilt: the most human of all names, with its hands buried in the soil and its soul yearning for paradise. Adam is all man and all men; we are all Adam and the children of Adam; and yet Adam is still too archetypal to ever become an Everyman name.

It will always remind us of the first man in one of the oldest stories we know. A man whose descendants have continued to live and die and toil and survive – and remember paradise.

Adam received an approval rating of 64%. 30% of people saw it as strong and handsome, but 14% thought it was too common.