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Last month, on Valentine’s Day, actor Samuel Johnson broke a world record by riding a unicycle more than 15 000 km on a zig-zagging route across Australia for 364 days. How did it all start? His sister Constance set him the toughest challenge she could think of. It started as a joke, and turned into a promise.

You see, Sam’s beloved sister Connie has cancer. She has fought it three times in her life, beginning from the age of 11, but now she is dying, and doesn’t have much time left. So Samuel promised he would raise a million dollars towards breast cancer, with his unicycle challenge dubbed Love Your Sister.

So far he has raised almost 1.5 million dollars for breast cancer research through the Garvan Institute, and plans to work full time for the charity. Even better, Connie’s cancer is stable, and her oncology team are surprised and very pleased with how well her treatment is going. They say there is a good chance she still has a year left, maybe more.

The reason I chose to cover this story, apart from the chance to record a key moment in unicycling history, and because I had been looking for an opportunity to feature the name Samuel, is because of the wonderful sibsets involved. Connie has two small boys named Willoughby “Wib” and Hamilton. Samuel’s two sisters are Constance and Hilde.

Samuel is a character from the Bible whose story starts before he is even conceived. His mother Hannah was barren, and prayed for a baby in the doorway of a religious shrine, vowing that if her prayer was answered, she would dedicate the child to God. A priest of the shrine named Eli heard her, and offered a blessing, suggesting that her prayer would be answered. Hannah gave birth to a son that she named Samuel; in fulfilment of her promise, she gave Samuel to Eli once the child was weaned (about the age of three).

Eli brought Samuel up to work in the shrine, where he proved a devoted and highly intelligent assistant. While still a child, Samuel woke up in the night to hear a voice calling his name. Thinking it was Eli calling him, he went to ask him what he wanted. After this happened a few times, Eli realised that it was God calling Samuel, and instructed him in how to respond, so he could hear the word of God.

God’s first message turned out to be a piece of unwelcome news for Samuel’s mentor Eli, because it was foretold that both his sons, who were corrupt priests, would come to a bad end. During Samuel’s youth, the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines, who took control of the land and ransacked the shrine. During the conflict, both of Eli’s sons were killed, and the old man, now blind and about ninety, died of shock when he heard the report.

Samuel became publicly recognised as a great prophet and seer, and after twenty years of oppression, he organised the Israelites into an army and led them in battle against the Philistines. There was a decisive victory for the Israelites, and for many years afterwards there was peace in the land. Samuel became a judge of the Israelites, and all went well for ten years, until the people demanded a king to rule over them instead. Samuel (after warning everyone what a terrible idea having a king was) anointed both Saul and David as the first and second kings of Israel.

Samuel was the last judge and the first prophet of the Hebrews, and the founder of a kingdom. He is revered in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and regarded as a saint in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

Samuel is the English form of the Hebrew name Shemu’el. The Bible tells us that the name Samuel means “asked of God”, which Hannah chose to indicate that Samuel was an answer to her prayer. However, this is not correct, and is rather the meaning of the name Saul. It would seem that the names of the first prophet and first king have got confused, and perhaps even their narratives have too.

Samuel can be translated as either “heard by God”, or “hearer of God” – the first one to suggest that Hannah’s prayers were heard and answered by God; the last one to signify his role as prophet. It can also be understood as “son of God”, which makes sense as Samuel was raised from early childhood in God’s shrine.

Although in some use in Britain in the late Middle Ages, Samuel became far more common after the Protestant Reformation. Famous English Samuels include lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, satirical poet Samuel Butler, and diarist Samuel Pepys. Samuel was one of the very earliest English names to travel to the American colonies, and famous American Samuels include Samuel Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse code, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as the beloved author Mark Twain. The United States itself even became personified as a Samuel – Uncle Sam.

Samuel is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #46 for the 1900s, and dropped out of the Top 100 during the 1930s. It reached its lowest level in the 1960s at #164, but was back in the Top 100 by the 1970s. It was #14 for the 1990s, and since then has remained extremely stable, hovering around that position.

Currently it is #12 nationally, #20 in New South Wales, #15 in Victoria, #12 in Queensland, #18 in Western Australia, #11 in Tasmania, #16 in the Northern Territory, and #14 in the Australian Capital Territory. It is of similar popularity in the UK and the US, and is a Top 100 name in many countries, making this a very international name.

Samuel is a handsome name which has strength, but also softness. A timeless classic, it is currently at its historic height of popularity, and has been stable for decades, making it a very safe choice. It is so commonly used around the world that it has no particular image attached to it. That means that when it comes to picturing a Samuel, he could be any age, of any appearance, and be anything; an athlete, writer, doctor, traveller, builder, or prime minister. The short form Sam is commonly used as a full name for boys, and is currently only just outside the Top 100.

Samuel received an outstanding approval rating of 88%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2014, and the highest-rated boys name of the year. People saw the name Samuel as handsome and classic (27%), strong yet gentle (17%), ageing well (16%), a “nice guy” name (15%), and suiting a variety of people (13%). However, 6% thought it was too common and boring. Nobody thought that the name Samuel wasn’t masculine enough.